THE UNDERGROUND RAILWAY IN ORANGE COUNTY
Wilmot M. Vail Tells of Lines Over
Which Fugitive Slaves Traveled
clipping from the scrapbook of Henry L. Nielsen, Sr.
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.
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
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
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
“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.