Friday, August 28, 2020

A matter of historical record: Windham’s underground railroad

 By Walter Lunt

(Part one of a two-part series)

The speaker was forceful and eloquent, described as “unequaled except by Frederick Douglas.” His name was Henry Bibb, a runaway slave who stood before a friendly and sympathetic audience in Windham in 1849. His talk was about the evils of human bondage and the abolishment of slavery.

Windham's Walker House, circa 1850, was once a
stop on the Underground Railroad.

Although slavery had been outlawed in Maine and Massachusetts decades earlier, resistance still persisted in many parts of the North due to cotton interests, the soon to be enacted Fugitive Slave Act and outright bigotry.

In the book Maine’s Visible Black History (Tilbury House, 2006), co-author H.H. Price describes how runaway slaves from the South were aided by blacks, whites and Native Americans either by sailing vessels, horse-drawn carriages or even railway. In fact, as rail transportation was emerging in the 1830s, the terms agent, station master and conductor were commonly used and understood; soon after, they were taken up in connection with helping fleeing slaves, or passengers. The new vocabulary may have influenced the term Underground Railroad (URR).

Runaway slaves traveling overland and bound for Canada fanned out from Portland on URR routes to Windham, Gorham, Westbrook, Cumberland and Yarmouth. Others sailed on coasting ships to the Maritime provinces in Canada.

Dark passage along land routes was dangerous, both to the runaway and to the “conductor.” Fines reaching into the thousands of dollars and even jail time awaited those caught aiding and abetting fugitive slaves.

As a result, station masters at stops along the way had to be clever and resourceful in the fabrication of hiding spots. Some were downright creative, even cunning.

One such secretive hideaway was located in Windham’s old Walker farm (the former Mugford house) on River Road in the Newhall neighborhood. Carla LaRoche, who grew up in the house, says her brother found the “secret room” by accident while exploring the basement. The south wall, ostensibly the inside of the foundation, was actually a build-out. Behind it was a small dark room…with no door. The actual entry-way was hidden by the bottom of a staircase that lead to the first-floor kitchen. When not in use, the base was suspended two inches above the basement floor and could be raised higher to allow entrance to the secret room. The “squeeze in” entrance, barely big enough for a person to crawl through, was blocked when the staircase was fully extended. The weight of a person stepping on to the stairway from the kitchen would drop the base, making a distinct noise which, according to LaRoche, was the signal for any occupants of the room to hunker down and stay quiet. During an inspection of the basement by a constable or slave master, the entrance was not visible, as long as the occupant remained standing on the staircase.

“You could only go in that hole when the stairs were in the up position,” said LaRoche, “someone would stand on the stairs while (the authorities) searched the basement.”

LaRoche’s mother, Carol Rogers, the current owner of the sprawling building (now a private assisted living facility), said the great-great grandson of Charles Walker, who built the house in 1850, visited in 1970s and confirmed that family tradition indicated the house had indeed been a stop on the underground railway.

Next time, Windham Quakers and others also assisted in the secret journeys and concealment of runaway slaves.  <


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