Throwback Thursday by Matson Insurance: The Underground Railroad

heathMatson Insurance is partnering with Jefferson County History Center to offer exploreJeffersonpa.com readers a look in Jefferson County’s past. Today “The Underground Railroad” is being showcased.

(Photo: Located at 64 Pickering Street, this home was once the dwelling of Judge Elijah Heath, an Abolitionist involved in the escape of two fugitive slaves from the jail in Brookville. He was eventually fined.)

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IS NOT A SUBWAY

Stories abound about the tunnels that run under Brookville’s Main Street and some misconstrue that these openings were part of the Underground Railroad. In reality they were probably used to deliver coal to heat the buildings or to receive stock directly into the basements. Folks often blend information from different sources or “put two and two together.” Sometimes the results are plausible or true, but more often they are not.

Searching for the facts in such cases can be fun or frustrating. Searching for the facts about the Underground Railroad can be very frustrating because of its secret nature. Abolitionists who were part of the story and the fugitive slaves who used the trails to escape to freedom did not want to give away their secrets. They spoke and referred to the URR in code and did not leave much of a written record.

Here in Jefferson County, some information is recorded in Scott (1888) and McKnight (1917). Scott moved to the county about 1856. In her history she mentions 1834 when “two runaway slaves” were lodged in the county jail and “outspoken abolitionist” Elijah Heath and jailer Arad Pearsall aided in their escape. She also mentions that in the same year “two darkeys made their appearance there [Beechwoods] and remained a good part of the winter.”

McKnight, born and bred in Brookville, adds more to the story by devoting a full chapter in his history to the institution of slavery, abolition, slavery in Pennsylvania, the value of slaves, and the revolutionary Negro soldiers. He also mentions several Brookville people who owned slaves between 1824 and 1840 and writes, “A report in this or any other neighborhood that kidnappers were around struck terror to the heart of every free colored man and woman. Negroes of my acquaintance in Brookville have left their shanty homes to sleep in the stables of friends when such rumors were afloat.”

Fugitive slaves would not want to be seen, so Judge Heath more than likely harbored slaves on a farm he owned. His home on Pickering Street is marked by a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker that describes his assistance in freeing two fugitive slaves from the jail in Brookville.

[email protected] County Historical Society, Inc.

Throwback Thursday is brought to you by Matson Insurance in Brookville.

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Submitted by the Jefferson County History Center.


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