A “Station” with Rails Heading in All Directions
Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center
Quaker stationmasters of the Underground Railroad often had a delicate balancing act: protecting those who came to them for aid yet not overtly engaging in falsehoods. Last December this column explained how John Vickers told the truth “slowly and suspiciously,” and thereby foiled slave hunters in hot pursuit of their quarry. Another truthful but cunning stationmaster was Dr. Jacob Paxson of Norristown (shown above), who conducted railroad work in the 1840s-‘50s.
After the “riot” at Christiana on September 11, 1851, many of the black farmhands who had participated in the resistance fled to escape capture and prosecution by U.S. marshals. Four of the fugitives, including the leader of the resistance, William Parker, had made their way to Dr. Paxson’s home. They were then hidden for days in a pile of wood shavings at a nearby shop, owned by Samuel Lewis, a black carpenter. The town, meanwhile, was being closely watched by U.S. marshals.
At a clandestine meeting of local abolitionists, the problem was discussed. Dr. Paxson proposed a clever ruse. From Joseph Brody, who ran a stable, they acquired five wagons and teams of horses. They offered to pay, but Brody, sympathetic to the cause of the UGRR, said he was happy to do his part. That evening, the wagons, laden no doubt with suspicion-arousing materials, headed out. One was sent up a turnpike; another went down the same road; a third headed toward West Chester, while the fourth went in the direction of Downingtown. These earlier four wagons dispersed the vigilant marshals. Then Parker and his companions emerged from their shavings, having also shaved their beards and changed their clothes, and calmly walked out of Samuel Lewis’s shop to the home of William Lewis, perhaps a brother of the man who hid them. Although the nervous William got lost for a while, eventually the four safely arrived at Quakertown. From there they wended their way to Canada. The hapless marshals later pursued them but without success.
William Parker reached Buxton, a settlement in Ontario that was populated by American freedom-seekers, people who in fact attained their freedom. They became African-Canadian, a nationality they could more proudly claim. Now a free man, Parker learned to read and write. For a while he wrote for Frederick Douglass’s Rochester newspaper, North Star. He was later elected to office in Buxton and then to the local township council, supported by voters both black and white. Though far from perfect, Buxton highlighted the innate abilities of black persons who were given opportunities for success, as well as people’s capacity for racial amity.
Dr. Paxson, in the meantime, continued his work as a stationmaster for the Underground Railroad.