Students make a stop on Underground Railroad
Niagara farm still has below-ground concealed chamber used to hide runaway slaves
Photos by Tom Rivers
BURT – Albion students in the multicultural clubs at the elementary and high schools visited Murphy Orchards last Friday. The Niagara County farm on McClew Road was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The students are shown entering the barn at Murphy Orchards, which owner Xander Murphy said is largely unchanged from the Underground Railroad era in 1850 to 1861.
A concealed chamber in the barn remains. A ladder leads to a room that is 12 feet below ground.
The Murphy family and historians are unsure if the concealed room was originally built to hide people escaping slavery or for McClew family members to hide from invading British soldiers or hostile Native Americans. An archeological investigation is underway to help solve that mystery.
Charles and Anna Maria McClew were active in humanitarian work along the Underground Railroad from 1850 to 1861. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 (when Buffalo native Millard Fillmore was president), the federal government allowed bounty hunters to track down runaway slaves in the North and return them to their owners in the South.
If the runaway slaves could make it to Canada, they would be free. Orleans and Niagara counties were a popular route along the Underground Railroad, as runaway slaves, often led by Harriet Tubman and other conductors, travelled along the Erie Canal and Lake Ontario shoreline, working their way to Canada, Murphy told the students.
The farm in Burt was a popular spot on the Underground Railroad. It was out in the country and people could move at night, less likely to be detected by the bounty hunters.
Murphy said some farmers would transport escaped slaves in horse-drawn wagons. Some of the farmers and other residents opened up their homes and barns for the runaway slaves, feeding them and giving them a place to rest before the next stop on their journey.
“People like the McClews stood up to bullies,” Murphy told the students in the multicultural clubs. “If we could all stand up to injustice, the world would be a better place.”
Students walk from a barn through an orchard to reach Hopkins Creek, a popular route used by runaway slaves about 160 years ago.
There were 21 students from Albion on the tour on Friday, as well as parent chaperones and the club advisors, Carmen Rose Brittan in the elementary school and Della Morales in the high school.
Xander Murphy, right, leads the students to Hopkins Creek. Escaped slaves would likely follow the creek to the Lake Ontario shoreline and then head west to Niagara Falls.
Murphy said many of the runaway slaves only had their feet covered in cloths or they were barefoot. Often they travelled at night, walking through streams as they moved closer to Canada.
Jeremiah Knight provides a steady hand to an Albion student who wanted to touch the water in Hopkins Creek.
Murphy said students were walking on the same ground, seeing the same stones and much of the same landscape as the runaway slaves.
Murphy Orchards is part of the New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail.
For more information about Murphy Orchards, click here.