CUMBERLAND, Md. (AP) One railroad ran above ground; the other ran secretly beneath.
One carried passengers and porters; the other took runaway slaves to freedom.
One piece of Cumberland’s rich railroad history is easily seen, even by drivers on Interstate 68: the restored Western Maryland Railway Station on the east bank of Wills Creek.
On the other side of the waterway, beneath the floor of towering Emmanuel Episcopal Church, is another station: the last stop, for many, on the underground railroad.
Untold numbers of black fugitives passed through Cumberland in the 1850s, when an abolitionist, the Rev. Hillhouse Buell, was pastor at Emmanuel, local historians say.
The church was built atop the remains of a Colonial-era fort near the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, an old shipping route from Washington to the Western Maryland mountains.
Runaways, traveling on foot at night, followed the canal to Cumberland and hid in the brush, waiting for a signal. When the church sexton, a free black man, rang the bell twice, they sprinted up the hill, through a gate and into the maze of tunnels beneath the church.
The next night, they made their way to freedom in Pennsylvania, across the Mason-Dixon line, just five miles away.
“They didn’t leave a written record,”said Stephanie Gates, whose Queen City Tours feature the church’s history. “It’s like putting a puzzle together: sometimes you have to make little leaps; sometimes the pieces fit together so perfect.”
Emmanuel Episcopal’s current pastor, the Rev. Edward C. Chapman, said he doubted the story when he arrived in 1985. “It had the ring of local folklore,” he said.
He became a believer after receiving numerous visitors from far away, with no family in Cumberland, who knew the underground railroad story.
“They had to have heard it as part of the oral history,” Mr. Chapman said.
Collecting that unwritten history is the goal of the African-American Heritage Society Inc., which dedicated its headquarters in Cumberland on Feb. 1. The story of Emmanuel Episcopal has been shared for generations by black residents.
“The stories need to be told. They need to be examined,” society President Leontyne Peck said.
Cumberland had a black high school, George Washington Carver High, with students who came from up to 60 miles away, society members said. Some families moved from neighboring West Virginia to Cumberland for that reason; others paid local people to board their children.
School cook Towanda Davis Moss ran a boardinghouse that also welcomed black porters who worked on passenger trains that stopped regularly in Cumberland, once Maryland’s second-largest city.
“There was a thriving African-American business community, too,” said Miss Peck. Located mainly along Central Street, it was largely demolished to make way for Interstate 68, which opened in 1991.
Gone, too, are most of the manufacturers and coal mines that once provided good-paying jobs for white and black residents of Cumberland and Allegany County. Cumberland’s overall population dropped from nearly 38,000 in 1950 to about 21,500 by 2000.