In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to take this moment to explore some of our own African American heritage sites that tell important stories of Allegany County, Maryland. In our Passages of the Western Potomac Heritage Area, Allegany County’s state-designated heritage area, you can explore these stories and attractions.
EMMANUEL EPISCOPAL CHURCH
The Emmanuel Church sits on land that was originally Fort Cumberland, which served as a frontier outpost during the French and Indian War. Earthwork tunnels remaining from the fort run under the church. The church was constructed around 1850 and designed by well-known Philadelphia architect John Notman.
The rector of Emmanuel Parish at the time was Rev. David Hillhouse Buel, who had been active at other Underground Railroad sites in Sykesville and Westminster, MD, before coming to Emmanuel in 1847. Rev. Buel worked alongside the Sexton (custodian) of the church. The sexton’s job included keeping the church and rectory looked after, keeping the furnace going and ringing the church bell, and also doing custodial work at the Allegany Academy.
These three buildings are on a line with each other that runs about 200 yards (Emmanuel Parish Church is at 16 Washington Street, the Allegany County Public Library (Allegany Academy) is at 31 Washington Street, and the old rectory is at 29 Prospect Square). They are connected by a tunnel that once was part of the defenses of Fort Cumberland. In the 1850s, a steam line ran through this tunnel from the furnace under the church to the Academy and beyond to the Rectory. It was a natural part of the sexton’s job to pass between these buildings' day and night.
Oral history tells us that escaping slaves would arrive on the C&O Canal and hide out in Shanty Town, a section of Cumberland where free Black community members lived. The sexton would ring the bell in a special way to signal it was safe for the escaping slaves to travel to the church's tunnels, where they would rest a day beneath the church, receiving food and aid from Rev. Buel and other abolitionists and conspirators. When night fell, they would go down the tunnel that led them through the basement of the Academy and into the basement of the rectory. Then, they would go out the rectory cellar door, which in those days was in an unpopulated part of town and meet up with the transportation that would take them across the Mason-Dixon Line, just 4 miles away, or up another route that would lead them to the Land of Freedom. In this story, the tunnels under Emmanuel Parish Church were the last Underground Railway stop in slave territory for many.
Today, you can schedule tours and visit the tunnels beneath Emmanuel Episcopal Church as well as their newly renovated Welcome Center to learn more about Washington Street's connection to the Underground Railroad.