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“Kindly Friend Willis” was conductor on the Underground Railroad

South and east view of the Willis House, 190 Willis Road, York PA. Library of Congress image 1933.
South and east view of the Willis House, 190 Willis Road, York PA. Library of Congress image; taken by Paul Galbreath in January 1963

According to the Library of Congress, the Willis House is the most pretentious and academically correct example of eighteenth century English domestic architecture in York County. The builder, William Willis, was a Quaker farmer and mason who built the York courthouse (demolished in 1841) in which the Continental Congress met, 1777-78, and the Quaker meeting house of 1766.

His son, Samuel Willis, was an active participant in the anti-slavery movement in central York County and was a ringleader of the illegal, but morally correct actions of the Underground Railroad. He and a group of fellow Quakers would escort fugitive slaves through York County. A typical route would begin in the Shrewsbury area, with slaves taken to the Springwood farm of Quaker Jonathan Jessop (now Apple Hill Medical Center off the Susquehanna Trail south of York). Jessop or his friend James Chalfant would take the slaves into York to Amos Griest or north of York to Samuel Willis. He in turn would either turn them over to a black businessman in York named William C. Goodridge or would send them north toward the Quakers in Lewisberry and Newberry Township. From there they would often end up across the river in Dauphin County and Harrisburg.

The western side of the Willis House.
The western side of the Willis House.

The Willis house is southwest of Prospect Hill Cemetery. It is off of today’s Willis Road which diagonally connects Pennsylvania Avenue to Parkway Boulevard just west of N. George Street. The house is one of two locations in York County officially listed on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, the other being the William C. Goodridge House at 123 E. Philadelphia Street.

Known affectionately as “Kindly Friend Willis,” Samuel Willis managed to stay away from any legal trouble, yet reportedly helped scores of runaways move through the region.

The view of the house from Willis Road.
The view of the house looking northeast from Willis Road. YCHT image, taken in 1900.

According to an interesting history kept by Philadelphia Underground Railroad conductor William Still, a free black man, one night a group of sixteen runaway Maryland slaves — including men, women, and small children — managed to slip out of Baltimore County, cross the Mason-Dixon Line, and make their way into York County. However, slave hunters were on their trail, so a series of Underground Railroad conductors provided covert assistance to them. These helping hands included Joel Fisher and Constable William Yocum. The latter, assisted by a free black man whose identity is not known, took the slaves one by one out into Samuel Willis’s cornfield and hid them under the shocks.

The following night, Dr. Robert N. Lewis met the fugitives and piloted the group northward to a hiding place along the banks of Conewago Creek south of his home in Lewisberry. He kept them concealed for several days, visiting them periodically and bringing provisions he had hidden in his saddlebags.Lewis and York Springs conductor William Wright took the slaves to a forest near Wright’s house before sending them deeper into the clandestine network of conductors and way stations.

Modern image of the Willis House taken by Dianne Bowders. From Jim McClure's York Towne Square blog.
Modern image of the Willis House taken by Dianne Bowders. From Jim McClure’s York Towne Square blog.

Original and subsequent owners: The chain of title to this property includes the following owners: William Willis, 1752; Samuel Willis, 1800, and his heir Joel Willis; John Stahle, et al., 1855; Trustees of Prospect Hill Cemetary, 1871 (still held property in 1979). Privately owned now.

A very large stone barn to the east of the house, built in 1820 by Samuel Willis, was destroyed by arson ca. 1970. Its ruins are standing.

Sources: York County Heritage Trust, Vertical Files, BLS 3034, “Willis Families”; Library of Congress website and photos;  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/pa1014/

Images taken for:

Historic American Buildings Survey
National Park Service
Department of the Interior
Washington, D.C.

Watch for Scott Mingus’s new book on the Underground Railroad in York County, Pa. to be published in 2016!