- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

WESTON, Conn. - Up a steep, narrow road in a remote part of this small town sits an old icehouse with only the four stone walls standing. A tunnel runs from the icehouse more than 20 feet and suddenly ends, but the mystery surrounding it has lingered for generations.

Legend has it that the property was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and a team of archaeological specialists from Central Connecticut State University spent several days in August digging at the site for clues.

They don’t expect to know for months whether the property was a stop for slaves because they must sift through artifacts found in the dirt and walls and conduct more research of the area and historical documents. But their findings, which include ceramics stuffed in the wall, a bone-handled knife, nails and animal bones, left them intrigued.

“It’s just curious why we’re finding these household goods in the tunnel,” says Jerry Sawyer, an adjunct instructor at Central. “Certainly it has that potential. But we cannot say definitively that it is.”

Warren Perry, an anthropology professor at Central who specializes in the African diaspora, says some of the artifacts were found near the doorway. Such items might have been used to bless the house as part of an African spiritual practice known as minkisi, he says.

“They would do it in the doorways because that’s where the spirits pass through,” Mr. Perry says. “Each of these items by themselves are significant for African spiritual practices, especially when they’re associated together. And they’re right where they should be by the doorway.”

The project is the latest in a growing national effort to document sites on the secret informal network of safe houses used by fugitive slaves in their run for freedom in the 1800s. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a $110 million museum that opened in Cincinnati last year, hosts programs and forums on the horrors of slavery and the active resistance movements.

“It is something that has been growing in intensity over the past decade,” says Robert Forbes, associate director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University. “Every new confirmed site gives us new data that expands our understanding of what remains really a very shadowy chapter in American history.”

Mr. Forbes says some suspected sites may be no more than folklore and romance. “There are a lot of root cellars and basements and cupboards that have been imaginatively converted into hiding places,” he says.

He says he would like to see letters or other documents tying the property owner to the anti-slavery movement.

Nationwide, there may be thousands of stops on the Underground Railroad, says Diane Miller, national coordinator of the Network to Freedom Program of the National Park Service. But there is academic resistance to the effort to identify sites, with some dismissing the accounts of Underground Railroad sites as mostly mythology, despite oral traditions that can provide clues that lead to descendants and documentary evidence, Miss Miller says.

“We would love to see these sites nominated to the Network to Freedom,” Miss Miller says.

Weston, a wealthy mostly white town in Fairfield County with a population of about 10,000, was divided over slavery in the 19th century, local historians say. The town was not known for abolitionist sentiment, unlike Auburn, N.Y., where former slave Harriet Tubman helped more than 300 runaway slaves finish their flight. But the icehouse on Ladder Hill Road is less than a mile from Little Egypt, a colony of black residents in the 19th century.

No one is quite sure where the legend originated, but many residents have heard it for decades.

“It really is the lore on Ladder Hill Road since before my time,” says Mary Ann Barr, a Weston historian who has lived on the same street as the icehouse since the 1950s and heard the account from families who lived on the street since the 1920s.

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