Wilmot M. Vail Tells of Lines Over

Which Fugitive Slaves Traveled



News clipping from the scrapbook of Henry L. Nielsen, Sr.

in the collection of the Historical Society of the Town of Warwick

Source is likely the Goshen Independent, reprinting information

 from the Port Jervis Daily Gazette


Transcribed by S. Gardner




          Wilmot M. Vail, of Port Jervis, in a recent issue of the Gazette, tells interestingly of the “underground railroad” over whose line slaves were transported from the South to the North during the troublous days that preceded the Civil War.

            “The iniquitous fugitive slave law that was enacted by Congress made it exceedingly hazardous to assist in any manner a slave on the road to freedom,” said Mr. Vail, “for to ‘aid, abet or assist’ the fugitive ‘directly or indirectly’ to escape from his claimant made the party liable to a fine of not to exceed $1,000, six months’ imprisonment and pay the claimant $1,000.”

            “The ‘underground railroad’ system was an improvised one.  There were several lines leading from the South to Canada.  The routes were zizzag in their course so as to enable the runaway the better to avoid recapture, and to lessen the chances of friends being arrested in assisting him to escape.  Through New York State the line of march was north-westward and westward to Oswego, Rochester and Buffalo and northeastward to New York City, and thence through the New England States to Montreal.  There were two lines leading to Goshen.  One was from Easton, Pa., by way of Deckertown (now Sussex), N.J., and Pine Island, N.Y.  The other was by way of Montgomery, N.Y.

            “I enlisted in the cause in 1847 when living at Goshen at the age of 19 years, and I was the recognized ‘agent’ of the system at that station, which was known only to friends of the cause.  Sometimes fugitives arrived on foot and sometimes a friendly conductor of a railroad would help them on their way.  There was a man named Wood, the owner of a brickyard at Pine Island, who helped those who were closely pressed by their pursuers to hide or forward them on their journey.  At Newburgh there was a colored man named Alsdorf, of a family of musicians, who provided for and concealed fugitives until an opportunity came to send them north.  Others were sent from Goshen by way of Montgomery, the home of resent (sic) Congressman Thomas W. Bradley.  These walked the distance or sometimes were carried their in wagons by friendly farmers.  At Montgomery there was a man named Stephen Rapalje, afterwards supervisor of his town, and another named Millspaugh, who looked after the runaways and sent them on their journey.  The railroad was used with great caution in facilitating fugitives to escape and much depended upon the intelligence and experience of the fugitive and the friendliness of railroad employes to insure safe transportation.  I had a friend named Coddington, an abolitionist and Erie Railroad conductor, who carried many fugitives on his train westward to Buffalo on tickets given to me for the purpose by Hon. Ambrose S. Murray, of Goshen, who was a director of the railroad, bank president, and represented his district in Congress.  These tickets were especially marked.  If the party was closely pursued by his owner and a U.S. Marshal, we sent him in the opposite of Newburgh, where Alsdorf took care of him.


A Pathetic Incident


            “There was no organization in the work of piloting runaway slaves northward; only an understanding.  I never experienced any trouble in securing funds for the cause, and I found men of both political parties equally ready to contributed.  I never asked in vain.  Among those who backed me was “Bill” Rumsey, a Goshen man, who kept in the background.  His father was one of the most prominent citizens of the town.  Another of my secret backers was a dentist who rented a room over my store, named Graham.  He was president of the Democratic club, and was above suspicion.

            “There were many interesting incidents that occurred during my ‘underground’ agency.  The most pathetic one was a sudden appearance in my store of a fugitive slave, with his wife and two children, one an infant borne in its mother’s arms.  Their scared and appealing look I shall never forget.  The man handed me a slip of paper which had on it simply the word “Vail.”  They said they were closely pursued. Knowing that no time must be lost I opened the trapdoor to my cellar and hurriedly sent them below.  From the cellar a door opened to the outside of the building.  I then pulled a knob which rang a bell in the dentist’s room.  Graham understood the signal and rushed down in his shirt sleeves and I had no more than made him acquainted with the situation when in rushed a United States Marshal and the owner of the slaves.  In the meantime Graham had hurriedly obeyed the instructions I gave him, to go downstairs and get the fugitives out, which he did, and sent them to the house next door, where they were safe for the time being.  The marshal, angered and disappointed in his prey escaping, said to me, ‘I want you.’ ‘I suppose so’ I replied, ‘what do you want of me?’  During this brief colloquy Graham had sized up the situation and passed the word among the colored population to rally in my defence.  Within the space of ten minutes there were at least one hundred Negroes gathered in front of my premises ready for a fight.  Things looked serious for the U.S. marshal when Graham came in and explained that he was the chairman of the Democratic club of Goshen.  He said, ‘Now look here, Vail hasn’t those people.  I’m a Democrat.  They went on the train that just went to Middletown.’  That little speech saved us.  The train was still standing at the depot and the marshal and slave driver jumped aboard and were carried off.  In the meantime arrangements were made to get the fugitives out of town and the milk train came along and they were put aboard and taken to Newburgh and Alsdorf took them in charge.  An hour later the marshal came back to Goshen furious over the trick that had been played and said to me ‘We will take you anyway.  You are under arrest.  We will take you to Fort Lafayette’.  It was then about dusk and observing that the Goshen Negroes were standing on the corners ready for a fight, the marshal concluded it advisable to let me go, and that was the last of this episode.  This was in 1849.

            “There was a Quaker family named Bull who lived at Chester, near Goshen, who took care of all fugitives who came to them.  At that time public sentiment, while not openly expressed, was largely with the abolitionists.”

            Mr. Vail said in the early part of the Civil War a Democratic speaker, in addressing an audience in front of the Occidental Hotel at Goshen, pointed him out to the crowd as the agent of the underground railroad.  Vail replied, “Yes, and I never asked a Democrat for aid in my work but he assisted me, and even the speaker has done this.”

            Of all the men who secretly, none openly, gave aid to Wilmot Moore Vail, in his humane work of sixty years ago, he alone survives.