BLACK HISTORY MONTH RECOGNIZES EXCELLENCE TODAY AND REMEMBERS THE UNDERGROUND RAILWAY IN ORANGE COUNTY’S PAST
Orange County, and including Newburgh, Chester, Warwick, Florida, Blooming Grove and Goshen have a long storied past of efforts to fight for the rights of African Americans and alongside of them.
As early as the 1700’s there was an active Underground Railroad that came up from New York City and the South, and continued North and West toward Rochester and Canada. In the 1800’s it became more organized and included many “Safe Houses” along the way.
Today we continue to be very proud of the great advances by our African American brothers and sisters and the strides they have made to the very top in every area of business, education and science. We are also very proud of our youth which is excelling in many areas of both scholarship and athletics
Transcript – Wilmot M. Vail Tells of Lines Over Which Fugitive Slaves Traveled
“The ‘underground railroad’ system was an improvised one. There were several lines leading from the South to Canada. The routes were zig-zag in their course so as to enable the runaway the better to avoid recapture, and to lessen the chances of friends being arrested in assisting him to escape. Through New York State the line of march was north-westward and westward to Oswego, Rochester and Buffalo and on to Canada.
A Pathetic Incident
“There was no organization in the work of piloting runaway slaves northward; only an understanding. I never experienced any trouble in securing funds for the cause, and I found men of both political parties equally ready to contributed. I never asked in vain. Among those who backed me was “Bill” Rumsey, a Goshen man, who kept in the background. His father was one of the most prominent citizens of the town. Another of my secret backers was a dentist who rented a room over my store, named Graham. He was president of the Democratic club, and was above suspicion.
“There were many interesting incidents that occurred during my ‘underground’ agency. The most pathetic one was a sudden appearance in my store of a fugitive slave, with his wife and two children, one an infant borne in its mother’s arms. Their scared and appealing look I shall never forget. The man handed me a slip of paper which had on it simply the word “Vail.” They said they were closely pursued. Knowing that no time must be lost I opened the trapdoor to my cellar and hurriedly sent them below. From the cellar a door opened to the outside of the building. I then pulled a knob which rang a bell in the dentist’s room. Graham understood the signal and rushed down in his shirt sleeves and I had no more than made him acquainted with the situation when in rushed a United States Marshal and the owner of the slaves. In the meantime Graham had hurriedly obeyed the instructions I gave him, to go downstairs and get the fugitives out, which he did, and sent them to the house next door, where they were safe for the time being
The marshal, angered and disappointed in his prey escaping, said to me, ‘I want you.’ ‘I suppose so’ I replied, ‘what do you want of me?’ During this brief colloquy Graham had sized up the situation and passed the word among the colored population to rally in my defence. Within the space of ten minutes there were at least one hundred Negroes gathered in front of my premises ready for a fight. Things looked serious for the U.S. marshal when Graham came in and explained that he was the chairman of the Democratic club of Goshen. He said, ‘Now look here, Vail hasn’t those people. I’m a Democrat. They went on the train that just went to Middletown.’ That little speech saved us. The train was still standing at the depot and the marshal and slave driver jumped aboard and were carried off. In the meantime arrangements were made to get the fugitives out of town and the milk train came along and they were put aboard and taken to Newburgh and Alsdorf took them in charge. An hour later the marshal came back to Goshen furious over the trick that had been played and said to me ‘We will take you anyway. You are under arrest. We will take you to Fort Lafayette’. It was then about dusk and observing that the Goshen Negroes were standing on the corners ready for a fight, the marshal concluded it advisable to let me go, and that was the last of this episode. This was in 1849.
From a collection of the Historical Society of the Town of Warwick
The Clayton Residence on Shore Drive at Beaver Dam Lake was formerly owned by John A. Johnson ( this editor’s Godfather, and where I spent some very happy Summertimes during the 1960’s). During the era of the Underground Railroad it had a tunnel escape route for slaves through the hillside behind the house, as well as a back entrance that was also used for the area’s travelling minister. The current owners say that their research shows the house was omitted when early ‘Histories of Orange County Stone Houses’ publications were written because its first owner was a “Tory” or “Loyalist” to the British Crown. The Clayton family has made extensive renovations in recent years.