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Underground Railroad was active in York


The publication committee of the York County History Center recently released the first comprehensive look at the activities of the secretive Underground Railroad in York County, Pennsylvania. Drawn from a diverse array of primary, and some post-Civil War secondary, sources, the new book is titled The Ground Swallowed Them Up: Slavery and the Underground Railroad in York County, Pa. In chronological order, it gives a sweeping overview of local people, events, and places, at least those that can be documented. We may never know the identities of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people who were involved at various times but left no trace of their role, other than local lore or hand-me-down stories to their families.

Two prominent 19-century men were among the earliest local researchers trying to capture the history of the Underground Railroad in York County — prolific writer George Reeser Prowell and Dr. Israel H. Betz (misspelled as Dr. H. H. Butz in the above headline from the October 21, 1904, issue of the York Daily). The archives and library of the York County History Center contains many of Prowell’s and Betz’s accounts, which were published in various forums including the local papers and a variety of historical journals and publications, as well as in public speeches.

Here is one example – a summary of a talk that Dr. Betz presented at the one of the forerunners of YCHC, the York County Historical Society.

William C. Goodridge (YCHC)
William C. Goodridge (YCHC)

“‘The Underground Railroad in York’ was the title of a paper read by Dr. J. H. Betz [Well, the editor was closer than the headline in getting the speaker’s name right. It was Dr. I. H. Betz], of this city, at the quarterly meeting of the York County Historical society, held last evening in its rooms in the court house. The paper, which was prepared by the writer, described how refugee slaves, before the war, made their escape from the southern states into Pennsylvania.

“In the absence of the president, M. B. Spahr, the Rev. T. T. Everett presided over the meeting. The names of Hiram Young and Francis Farquhar were presented for life membership, by George R. Prowell, curator of the association. They were unanimously elected. Washington Smyser, of Chicago; H. C. Barnhart and Michael Engle, of this city, were elected to active membership.

“Dr. Betz was introduced by President Everett. He said among other things that some of the names of persons whose homes were stations of the Underground Railroad in this county are [William] Wright, [Jonathan and Samuel] Mifflin, [Jonathan] Jessop, [Dr. Webster] Lewis, [Joseph] Wickersham, [Amos] Griest, and [William C.] Goodrich [actually Goodridge]. He described many thrilling incidents which grew out of attempts to recapture slaves while on the way northward, referring to the fact that Thomas Garrett [a Quaker in the state of Delaware] succeeded in helping 2700 slaves escape bondage prior to the Civil War.

“The speaker gave an account of William Goodrich [Goodridge], an intelligent negro who came to York in 1806. Goodrich was then six years old. His ancestors had belonged to the Carroll family, of Baltimore. Goodrich learned the tanner’s trade at York, with Thomas Dunn. After he grew to manhood he learned the barber’s trade and conducted a toy and confectionery store in Centre square. He prospered in business and in 1842 built at the northwest angle of Centre square the first four story business block in York, which is now owned by John C. Jordan. His home on East Philadelphia Street, now owned by Mr. Rinehart Dempwolf, was one of the principle stations of the Underground Railroad in York county.

Goodridge house at 123 E. Philadelphia Street in the mid-20th century (Library of Congress)
Goodridge house at 123 E. Philadelphia Street in the mid-20th century (Library of Congress)

“To the rear of this house was a cave. In this cave the fugitive negroes were concealed during the day and in the darkness of the night they would be spirited across the Susquehanna river to Columbia, where the home of the Wright family was a station. Goodrich also had a place of concealment in his building on Centre square. It is believed he assisted 2000 negroes to escape from bondage.

“During the financial panic of 1857 he failed and his property in Centre square was sold. His son Glenalvin Goodrich was one of the first photographers in York. When General Early, with his division of 9,000 [actually 6,600] Confederates entered York June 28, 1863, William Goodrich left York, never to return. He went to Minneapolis where he died at the age of 67 years.”

Well, Dr. Betz has a few details incorrect, based upon other research and data, but he does give a useful overview of Goodridge’s life. We will examine the Underground Railroad in York County in a little more depth here in the Cannonball blog over the next few months.

In the meantime, please visit the bookstore of the York County History Center and pick up a copy (or two, they make great gifts!) of The Ground Swallowed Them Up: Slavery and the Underground Railroad in York County, Pa. It’s jammed with many of the “thrilling incidents” mentioned by Dr. Betz back in 1904.