Historical Tales of the Underground Railroad in Westfield

BeeLines - July 25, 2018

By Marybelle Beigh, Westfield Town & Village Historian

Historical Tales of the Underground Railroad in Westfield

“Did you know there is an underground railroad tunnel in that house across from the Barcelona Lighthouse?” Your Westfield Historian was queried as she was photographing the sign for a BeeLines about the Daniel Reed Pier some months ago.

“Sorry, I do not know anything about that,” was my reply, followed by my own question, “When was that house built? I don’t recall seeing it on any early map Barcelona from pre-Civil War times. In fact, it wasn’t even there in the late 1800s. Maybe the tunnel was a root cellar, or even a wine cellar? Or it MIGHT have been used during Prohibition for hiding the hauls from Canada during Prohibition rum-running!” There really are some prohibition tunnels around certain highly guarded secret buildings in our area, but it is still “verboten” to share such information in publications as there are still people living who don’t wish to be identified.

However, several years ago a faithful reader contacted me about a mystery when she exclaimed, “There’s a hidden room behind the fireplace in my old farmhouse!” And then she asked WHEN I could come look at it, as well as the title search and some additional documents about the history of her property. She also was quite concerned that her location not be shared publicly, for privacy and safety.

We do know that in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, many of the thousands of slaves who were attempting to escape to freedom in the northern US and Canada were harbored in this area. They were assisted by brave and sympathetic men and women who were willing to risk heavy fines or even imprisonment if caught breaking the runaway slave laws. So, everything was kept deeply secret, with very few actual documents being kept, and even fewer ever discovered. Consequently, it is difficult, after many rumors and stories that have been retold over the years, to tell fact from fiction.

Yes, indeed! There IS a secret room behind the fireplace in a very old, pre-Civil War era local (Westfield) farmhouse, which has never been investigated or documented, and which could very likely have been one of the safe-houses along the Underground Railroad in our area. The details of this particular location are not yet ready to be shared. But, below are some stories that may eventually “connect more dots together” in this most difficult project to research.

In the March 26, 1913, issue of the Westfield Republican, a headline – “An Interesting Story” – announced that Principal Frank S. Fosdick of Buffalo was to give a lecture at Welch Hall on the following Friday evening that would tell the story of “The Underground Railroad.” The following week, the April 2, 1913, newspaper summarized “A Fine Lecture” in which Mr. Fosdick described the slave laws, and which was illustrated mostly with instances that happened in Buffalo where his father had been a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.

However, Fosdick did describe a station “where the Westfield High School now stands” (which is where Top’s Market is located in 2018), as well as other stations “on Clinton street in a house then owned by Mrs. Dilley and occupied by R.C. Johnston, a former legislator and friend of William Lloyd Garrison; the Dieffenbach house on Clinton Street ten occupied by David Hall; the John Francis house on the corner of Jefferson and Franklyn streets, since torn down, and others which rumor names but of which we have not the proof.”

The reference to the station where the old high school was later built in 1902, and then razed in 1960 after the current WACS school was built in 1954, was the site of what was known as the Holt House, and earlier, as the Knowlton Mansion.  In 1941, a former local genealogist, Frank B. Lamb, wrote a paper – “The Knowlton Mansion In Westfield” – telling the story of the family who built beautiful mansion in 1855, which was destroyed by a disastrous fire in 1898. (Miraculously, one of two huge ornate mirrors survived the fire and is the one you see on your right as you enter Eason Hall!) David Knowlton, the father of the man who built the mansion, Dexter A Knowlton, first came to Westfield in 1813, when Dexter was one year old. Some years later the family moved to Freeport IL, and Dexter married, had a large family, amassed a fortune in the railroad business, and then returned to Westfield in 1855, “to take life easy and enjoy the fruits of his work.” He built the mansion, but after about 6 years decided to move elsewhere, and the home was purchased and occupied by the George W. Holt family.

In 1902, a son of Dexter Knowlton returned to Westfield for the Centennial Celebration to discover the mansion destroyed by fire and replaced by the newly built high school which was housing historical displays. The son shared memories of his life as a child in the mansion, particularly of its use as a station on the underground railroad. One story he recalled that there were two negroes hidden in the barn. Fearing their discovery, his father put them in the family carriage and covered them with animal robes and then returned to the home. But soon he “nonchalantly” called up their coachman to hitch up for a drive. After riding around town leisurely for a while, they went more quickly toward Fredonia, but dropped their passengers off at the next station.

Yet another authentic story of the Underground Railroad in Westfield appeared in the January 2, 1924 Westfield Republican, written by Mrs. Amoretta Fraser, a former resident, in a paper sent from her then home in Brooklyn to the Patterson Chapter D.A.R. She relates that her family lived on Clinton Street in 1840, which was next door to a larger home occupied by the family of Rossiter P. Johnson. He was lawyer and worked with abolitionists who were active with the Underground Railroad. Fraser recalled in the spring of 1841, of going next door for a neighborly visit to the kitchen of Mrs. Johnson. Upon opening the door, she was astonished to see the room filled with 20 or more young black men and women, as she had never seen black people in Westfield. Mrs. Johnson approached the young child with her finger to her lip and said to “Keep what you have seen here a secret, tell it to no one but your mother, she will understand and tell you about it and how important it is that nobody knows these people are here.” The Rossiter P. Johnson house is authentically documented as a station on the Underground Railroad.