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New evidence unearths Wilbraham’s involvement in Underground Railroad

Date: 7/2/2014

WILBRAHAM – If investigators are successful in uncovering a very unique hole in the ground, it could help fill a gap in people’s understanding of the town’s involvement in the Underground Railroad.

Members of the Wilbraham Atheneum and the Archaeological Services in the Anthropology Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) are exploring the possible existence of a fabled tunnel that connected the basement of the Old Meeting House to the foundation of the Alumni Memorial Chapel, also known as the Stone Church, on the grounds of Wilbraham and Monson Academy.

“There have been so many stories that have been told over the years and I thought it was finally time we got some answers and put it to rest,” Michelle Sampson, Atheneum trustee and historian, said. It was Sampson who initiated the project.

It is rumored – and the academy’s website proclaims – that the chapel was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Local lore states the tunnel was used to smuggle fugitive slaves to it in order to hide before moving on further north.

Dr. Eric Johnson, director of UMass Archeological Services, said if such a tunnel exists, it would be an extremely unique find.

Johnson and his team came out to Wilbraham recently to meet with Sampson and do some preliminary research and are in the process of putting together a proposal outlining the kinds of methods they would like to use in an attempt to uncover the tunnel.

“I’m not aware of anyone who has done this specific kind of work,” he said. “It’s kind of an unusual and special project. It’s going to be very interesting to see how it turned out.”

The Old Meeting House was built in 1793, but the current stone chapel wasn’t erected until after the Civil War. It was technically not a part of then Wesleyan Academy – which became Wilbraham Academy in 1912 and merged with Monson Academy in 1971 – until the 1930s when the school took ownership of the building and renovated it.

Atheneum President Sandy Sanders explained that the chapel was twice built as a wooden structure but burned down both times before a stone one was raised. Construction of the Stone Church began in the 1860s, but only the foundation was dug out prior to the start of the Civil War, which halted the erection of the actual structure. The foundation was not filled in, but capped, in order to prevent people from falling in, but allow work to continue once the war ended.

Legend has it, Sampson explained, that the capped foundation became an ideal hiding spot for fugitives attempting to avoid slave catchers as they made their way further north into upstate New York, Vermont and Canada.

“With the foundation capped, especially when the grass grew in, it was a perfect hiding place,” she explained. “No one who wasn’t from the area would know it was even there.”

Runaway slaves would sneak to the foundation undetected from the Old Meeting House via the tunnel, which ran underneath Mountain Road. They waited there until they were brought to a large ravine further up Wilbraham Mountain or to homes on Glendale Road where residents protected them before they continued on.

 “There are ghost stories that some people still remember hearing as children about the flickering lights on the mountain,” Sampson said. “In fact, those flickering lights were small fires the slaves had made while in the ravine. Locals told their children ghost stories about the flickering lights so they wouldn’t go up into the woods exploring and expose the hiding place accidentally and some of those stories stuck.”

Sanders, originally from Missouri, said she was aware that slave catchers once operated in her area, but admitted she was struck by the fact that even as far north as Massachusetts, protection for runaway slaves was still a necessity, as the bounty hunters would travel great distance to retrieve what amounted at the time to valuable stolen property. Sampson added that those who harbored fugitive slaves did so at great peril because while Massachusetts opposed slavery, the federal government did not provide any protection to those aiding runaway slaves.

She noted that “The History of Wilbraham,” penned by Chauncey Peck in 1913, details an incident in which resident Edward Norris, who had two refugees in his care, was involved in a fight with slave hunters, who wounded him, then captured one of the slaves while the other escaped into the woods.

“He was very lucky he wasn’t killed,” Sampson said.

Sampson said after hearing stories and reading about the history of the town’s involvement in the Underground Railroad through texts written by local historians such as Peck, Charles Merrick in 1963 and Coralie Gray in 2001, she wanted to further pursue the subject and contacted Christina Cronin in Wilbraham & Monson Academy’s Development Office to ask permission to look around.

The evidence she found after investigating the basements of both buildings as well as delving deeper into their histories has led her to believe the stories are true.

First of all, Sampson said she found a section of the wall in the church’s foundation that appears out of place.

“Everywhere else, the stones are very carefully laid and the cement is smooth,” she said. “In this area, it looks like the stones don’t fit and the cement work is not as carefully done. It does not match the rest of the walls at all.”

Sampson also noted large piles of dirt near the wall facing the Old Meeting House, as well as three large stones in the middle of the floor for which she said no one could offer an explanation. Among the theories she suggested was that the stones were found as the slaves dug the tunnel and they pushed them through rather than attempting to pull them out.

“They are far too heavy to be lifted,” she said.

Sampson was also told the story of a town highway department vehicle that fell into a large depression while work was being performed on Mountain Road in the 1950s. She said at the time it was unclear as to what caused the hole.

“They were trying to determine if it was a sinkhole or the result of an underground brook,” she said. “They found it unusual because it extended across the entire road and measured the same width from one side to the other. It seems far too symmetrical to be a natural occurrence.”

Instead of investigating further, however, the town simply filled in the depression and repaired the road, Sampson said, explaining that she has attempted to find town records of the occurrence, but files from that time were destroyed in a fire in the building where they were being stored.

“I’m currently working with the Springfield Public Library to find any newspaper articles on it,” she said.

With this evidence and knowledge, Sampson went to the trustees and asked that the Atheneum look into the possibility of a tunnel’s existence. Through connections, Atheneum Secretary Peter Ablondi was put in contact with Johnson at UMass, who agreed to visit the academy and the Old Meeting House and build a proposal to conduct additional testing on the site.

Johnson explained that while he has not done any work attempting to uncover tunnels non-invasive techniques called remote sensing that he would use to find other buried features, such as old foundations, would still apply. Specifically, he said electrical receptivity tests and ground penetrating radar could be effective.

“In electric receptivity tests, a mild electric current is passed through the ground between two pins in the ground  and the resistance to that current is measured. The presence of a buried feature, like a tunnel, even if it has been refilled, that’s going to be different resistivity than the surrounding soils that haven’t had a tunnel dug through them,” he explained. “With ground penetrating radar, the signal of radar pulses would be different as it passes over the tunnel.”

If in using these techniques, an anomaly is detected, the next step would be excavation.

“We would do an excavation that would try to cut across perpendicular to the route of the tunnel,” he said. “What I’d suspect we would find if there was a tunnel there is either an open tunnel or a filled in tunnel and we should be able to tell the difference between the filled soils in the tunnel and the surrounding undisturbed soils.”

No timeline has been established for the project, Johnson said, explaining the proposal has not yet been completed or accepted by the Atheneum. He is hopeful that the project will move forward, however.

“I am very interested to see what we might find there,” he said.