the hudson valley

Underground Railroad in Orange County NY

The Underground Railroad is the term used to describe the secret method of transporting slaves from the American South to freedom. No one really knows when the Underground Railroad began, but reports as early as the 1700's tell of secreting slaves away from their masters.

 Many slaves ultimately found their way to Canada. By the early 1800's "the railroad" was more organized with safe houses and procedures to follow along the route. For instance, since many escaped slaves traveled on foot by night in unfamiliar territory, the practice of hanging a lantern to a horse hitching post secretly advertized that the home's inhabitants were Abolitionist sympathizers.

map of Underground Railroad routes from the south to Canada

One leg of the many Underground Railroad routes began in Nyack NY and headed north to Albany. The Verplanck mansion at Plum Point in New Windsor was thought to be a safe house. Another route came up from New Jersey into Warwick and then into Chester.

The Rose Hill house in Chester (below) is still standing at the Southwest corner of High Street and Hambletonian. Escaped slaves were hidden in the basement of the house in a secret chamber. Reportedly there was a secret tunnel which led from the basement to the Erie Railroad station on Main Street. On the eastern wall of the basement foundation one can still see a 4 foot wide, circular area patched with stones. The house is on the historic home register and is currently run as a residence by the state.

photo of the Rose Hill house

Much about the railroad history remains solely as legend. Detailed records obviously were avoided due to the illegal nature of the activities of those who participated on this freedom trail. Oral history relates that the Underground Railroad continued to the Methodist Church in Sugar Loaf which also housed a tunnel running beneath King's Highway. But throughout the entire period of transporting slaves northward, the Quakers played an enormous role.

The popular impression of the period before the Civil War is that the South depended on slaves for their agrarian economy and that the North didn't.  However, up until the late 18th Century,  New York had as many slaves as Georgia and they were essential for similar agricultural labor needs.  Estimates are that at one time slaves made up 10% of the population in the Hudson Valley. Although some residents of the county were strongly against slavery before the war, it should be remembered that many remained on the fence about the matter and even more who were were against slavery but didn't think it was worth going to war about.

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