By Tanya Mohn
Secret rooms. Hidden passageways. Trap doors. An underground escape route through a network of caves, surfacing at a nearby spring. Sounds like a James Bond movie, but these clandestine places actually exist in (or under) dozens of America’s oldest homes.
Today, many are bed & breakfasts and everyone from history buffs to school children can relive history — especially during Black History month, which begins Feb. 1 — by staying at places thought to have been “stations” or safe houses on the Underground Railroad, an informal network that helped slaves escape to freedom.
Bringing it home
“It is kind of special to be so close to history,” said Vince Toreno, innkeeper at Ashley Manor Bed and Breakfast, in Barnstable, Mass., built in 1699, where a secret passageway connects the first and second floors to the attic. “Staying in a room so close to where a runaway slave might have been hiding and thinking ‘Am I going to live through until tomorrow? What’s going to happen to me?,’” Toreno said, “personalizes it, it brings it home.”
Visitors can see a ladder behind a secret panel in the Queen Charlotte Suite where the passageway begins, and a bookcase that swings open to reveal it in the King George Suite, on the second floor.
The Munro House, in Jonesville, Mich., has the remains of a 100-foot-long tunnel and a trap door from the basement to a secret room between the first and second floors. “If you didn’t know it was there, you could never find it,” said Mike Venturini, innkeeper, who regales guests with stories of how more than 400 runaway slaves allegedly hid in the secret room during a 15-year period on their way to Canada.
“Kids just love being in places out of the ordinary,” said Jared Maxwell, a teacher at nearby Williams Elementary School, where each year some 100 fourth grade students visit.
Lynne Smithwood grew up in the Samuel Fitch House in Westford, Mass., and with her five brothers played hide and seek in a basement tunnel believed to have been part of an escape route. Smithwood, now the innkeeper, said her childhood bedroom has a walk-in closet with a movable bookshelf that disguises a space where, according to family lore, slaves hid next to the warmth of the chimney. When she takes young guests exploring, “I give flashlights and big paintbrushes, to make sure there are no cobwebs in the way,” she said.
Educational overnight stays
The history was a surprise to Michael Rader, of Brookline, Mass., who stayed at the Samuel Fitch House recently with his daughter, Gavriel, 7, and son Adriel, 5. “We didn’t know anything about the house until we got there,” said Rader, who chose it because of its proximity to the Nashoba Valley Ski Area. “It was great,” especially for the children, who had “not yet been exposed to the Civil War or slavery,” he said. “We all learned something.”
Some B&Bs were not stations but are near historic sites, like the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Connecticut, the Harriet Tubman Museum in Maryland, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati — built near the Ohio River, a popular route for escaping slaves.
Pennsylvania had many stops on the Underground Railroad, as Quakers were active participants. Visitors to the Lancaster area can attend “Living the Experience,” a spiritually inspired interactive re-enactment at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “We try to highlight the role of faith and the church,” and to portray the strength and courage of the slaves who fled, said the Reverend Edward M. Bailey, the church’s pastor.
The lessons of the Underground Railroad can help people today overcome adversity and become agents of change, said Katie Johnson, public programs manager at The Freedom Center, which recently opened a permanent exhibit, “Invisible: Slavery Today.” “Some of the numbers are shocking: between 12 and 27 million people are thought to be enslaved today,” Johnson said, including 17,500 people trafficked into the United States each year.
Many spaces where runaway slaves hid were originally built to store guns, hide valuables, or function as root cellars. Some spaces were thought to be hiding places during Indian raids or the Revolutionary War.
Click here to read the rest of this story.