“Fugitives by the hundreds were fed, harbored and forwarded through this antislavery stronghold.”
– Author Charles E. Blockson Sr.
BY RANDY GRIFFITH
The Geistown Cloverleaf area is well-known as a hub for commerce and local travel. But in the 19th century, the location served as a different type of hub.
The William Sleek, or Slick, farmhouse in Geistown is widely recognized by historians as a regional depot for the Underground Railroad. Located near what is now Henderson Funeral Home at 2503 Bedford St., the farm took in blacks traveling from Bedford County and sent them on through Ebensburg or Johnstown.
In fact, Cambria County’s strong abolitionist sentiment made this area a popular wayside for escaped slaves, Charles E. Blockson Sr. said in his 1981 book, “The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania.”
“Fugitives by the hundreds were fed, harbored and forwarded through this antislavery stronghold,” Blockson wrote of the county.
The Underground Railroad was a clandestine network of routes and safe houses ferrying escaped slaves from the South to Canada.
Although eastern Pennsylvania is known for its “stations,” Bedford County also served as a gateway across the Mason-Dixon Line.
The very nature of the Underground Railroad required multiple options for directing its “cargo” between major way stations. Runaways reaching Bedford were sent to Fishertown, the divergence point for several routes crossing into Somerset and Cambria counties and on to the next relay point near Clearfield.
Fishertown residents providing assistance included Eli Miller, Samuel Way, William K. Miller, William Kirk, John Albaugh, Nathan Hammond and Amos, Samuel, William and Josiah Penrose, according to William J. Switala in his 2001 book, “Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania.”
From Fishertown, runaways were directed either to Hollidaysburg or along to Pleasantville, where Benjamin Walker, George Harbaugh and Samuel and George Hess directed them along the Conemaugh Path to Elton and onto Sleek’s farm at Geistown.
Mike Burke of Johnstown Area Heritage Association recounted one story collected during the organization’s research on black history here.
Slaves named Abraham and Patrick made their way over the Conemaugh Trail to the Geistown area. There, they encountered George Helsel, a local man described as “ignorant and brutal,” who was working with bounty hunters John Compston and Edward Maxwell.
Helsel shot Abraham in the knee and Patrick in the back.
But fortuitously, Helsel took the wounded blacks to Sleek’s farm for treatment after arresting them. After treatment, they were taken to Constable Sam J. Smith’s tavern on Clinton Street in downtown Johnstown, where they were locked up for several days.
The two began complaining about their injuries, “convincing Smith and everyone else in town that they would likely die before morning.”
But at daybreak, they were gone.
One historian says they were transported in a hay wagon over Hinckston Run Road.
“They were playing possum,” the account reads.
For most runaways, the route from Sleek’s led through Johnstown, where a network of free blacks and other sympathizers provided shelter in churches and homes.
Blockson writes that Johnstown conductors included Abraham Barker, John Cushon, James Helsop, Henry Wills, John Myers, Wallace Fortune, Isaac Weatherington, Frederick Kaylor, George Atcheson and John Manion.
From there, the route followed the valley to Conemaugh, Indiana County, and the station operated by the Rev. David Blair of the Presbyterian Church.
Others headed to Ebensburg, often through the town of Wilmore, which was founded by Godfrey Wilmore, a free black.
In Ebensburg, A.A. Barber sent the escapees on to Cherry Tree and north to Clearfield. Switala lists Dr. George Gamble as the Cherry Tree conductor, but Blockson includes the same name in his Johnstown list.
Glades Pike became an optional route from Fishertown. The path sent runaways to Somerset County, where William Willey and a “Mr. Smith” were ready to assist.
From Fishertown north, some traveled to Hollidaysburg, where Chimney Rocks was found to be a good rendezvous point. Members of the Williams family of Hollidaysburg were among the leading abolitionists of the day.
Williams family members proudly traced their ancestry to African, Native-American and European forebears, Blockson wrote. Hollidaysburg native Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open-heart surgery in 1893 at Provident Hospital in Chicago.