Emmanuel's Underground Railroad
Emmanuel Parish was founded in 1803. The cornerstone for the stone Gothic Revival Emmanuel Episcopal Church was laid in May 1849 with the consecration being held on October 16, 1851. It eventually cost $18,000 to erect the Church. The adjoining parish hall was constructed in 1901. In that same year, the entire property was enclosed by the existing stone wall. The church stands on the former site of Fort Cumberland.
The Story of the Underground Railroad at Emmanuel Parish Church
In the early 1850's, a young man named Samuel Denson came to Cumberland from Mississippi. He was an escaping slave who had somehow come up the Underground Railroad line that led here. Cumberland was, of course, in slave territory, but Samuel Denson decided not to continue on his own journey to freedom, but rather to stay here, pretending to be a freedman, and to work for the freedom of others.
He conspired with the Rev. David Hillhouse Buel, Rector of Emmanuel Parish, who had been active at other Underground Railroad sites in Sykesville and Westminster, MD before coming to Emmanuel in 1847. Rev. Buel gave him the job of Sexton (custodian) of the Church. Denson's job included keeping the Church and Rectory looked after, keeping the furnace going and ringing the Church bell, and also doing custodial work at the Allegany Academy.
These three buildings are on a line with each other that runs about 200 yards. They are connected by a tunnel that once was part of the defenses of Fort Cumberland. In the 1850's a steam line ran through this tunnel from the furnace under the Church to the Academy and beyond to the Rectory. It was a natural part of Samuel Denson's job to pass between these buildings day and night.
There was another part of the old Fort's defense works that ran from under the east end of the Church down the hill to the banks of Will's Creek. In those days, this was an area where rail lines came together at the Terminus of the C&O Canal. This section was called "Shanty Town" because it was full of saloons, brothels and the shacks where canal workers and lowlifes lived. It was a natural hiding place for someone on the run. It was also at the end of the C&O Canal towpath, which was a major line on the Underground Railroad that ran up the Valley of Virginia and met the Potomac near Harpers Ferry.
Escaping slaves who had reached the Shanty Town section of Cumberland were instructed to hide out there and await a signal for their next move. It was Samuel Denson's job to send them a message by ringing the Church bell in a special coded way, and then bring them up the hill by the old Fort's earthwork, through an iron gate that led the through a passage to safety under the Church.
It was beneath the Church that they would rest a day, receiving food and aid from Rev. Buel and other abolitionists and conspirators. When night fell again, they would go down the tunnel that led them through the basement of the Academy and into the basement of the Rectory. Then they would go out the Rectory cellar door, which in those days was in an unpopulated part of town, and meet up with the transportation that would take them across the Mason Dixon Line, just 4 miles away, or up another route that would lead them to the Land of Freedom. For many, the tunnels under Emmanuel Parish Church were their last Underground Railway stop in slave territory.
How we come to know the story of the Underground Railroad at Emmanuel:
The Underground Railway was a vast and highly illegal conspiracy.
Countless thousands of people, African and white Americans, were involved. By the law in those days, any escaped slave that was returned to his or her master could be beaten, mutilated or killed at the master's will. Any black person involved with the Underground Railroad would simply be hung. White people involved might get off with a long jail sentence if they had a good lawyer. It is not surprising, then that few actual documents remain of this rich and heroic history simply because almost nothing about it was ever written down.
The search for the story of the Underground Railroad is ongoing and relies in most part upon oral history (stories passed down from one generation to another in families and communities), and bits and pieces of evidence that can be strung together. This is largely the case of the station at Emmanuel Church.
The African American community of Cumberland has always known this story, passing it along in family and community lore. As well, much of the physical site remains under the Church and in the basements of the Academy (now the Public Library) and the old Rectory (now a law office), and there are pictures that show the old earthworks through which the escaping slaves accessed the station. In recent years, the oral history and the buildings and grounds have been strung together and we can now show and tell story.
Much of the credit for the revival of public interest in the Underground Railroad history at Cumberland rests with the work of Dr. Raymond Dobbard of Howard University. He visited the city in 2000 bringing his scholarly book Hidden in Plain View. This book tells of how innocent looking quilts were actually used as road maps to guide the slaves on their rout to freedom. One such quilt included a square with a symbol representing the Church and indicating that the bells would be rung as a signal - the very task of Station Master Samuel Denson!
Since this evidence came to light, members of the African American community have come forward with the oral tradition. As well, research has been done on Rev. Buel, the construction of the Church itself and the other buildings involved, and the life of Samuel Denson.
Text taken from a brochure produced by the Emmanuel Episcopal Church of Cumberland. It also appears on Emmanuel's website at Emmanuel Parish
This early 1900s postcard view of Emmanuel Episcopal Church is from the collection of Albert and Angela Feldstein.
Allegany County, Maryland
African Americans, History; Allegany County (Md.), History.
Allegany County (Md.), 1890-2008