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York County’s Underground Railroad Heroes: Jacob Wirt of Hanover

Jacob Wirt’s house in Hanover, PA (Hanover Evening Sun)

Jacob Wirt was a prominent 19th-century businessman and civic leader in Hanover, Pennsylvania. He owned a dry goods and general merchandise store on the town square, was active in the coal and lumber business, and was the first president of the Hanover Branch Railroad and later the president of one of Hanover’s leading banks. The ardent Whig-turned-Republican was a lifelong member of the German Reformed Church and a leader in the Hanover Water Company. He served as chief burgess in 1845.

Jacob Wirt was also a conductor on the secretive Underground Railroad, shepherding fugitive slaves from southwestern York County over the Monocacy Indian Trail (now part of Old Hanover Road) to York.

Here is an excerpt from my popular book, “The Ground Swallowed Them Up: Slavery and the Underground Railroad in York County, Pa.” (published by the York County History Center, 2016).

The book discusses Jacob Wirt and dozens of other York County conductors.

“A businessman named Coleman owned a large wagon to transport freight to villages between Baltimore and Hanover, where his brother-in-law lived. He concealed Caroline [Hammond] and her parents in the wagon and headed north toward the Mason-Dixon Line. Pulled by a team of six horses, the heavy wagon rumbled through several towns as Coleman followed his normal business routine. Hidden in the massive Conestoga-style wagon, the trio huddled in quiet fear while the wagon rolled into Hanover, the culmination of the normal business route. No one thought anything was abnormal, because Coleman’s vehicle was a familiar sight in town. Caroline later wrote that it was “easy for us to get transportation farther north.” In Hanover, prominent businessman and road constructor Jacob Wirt assisted Caroline’s family. They eventually made it to Scranton where her parents found employment, making a combined $27.50 a month. More importantly, they were finally free.”

No one is quite certain how many freedom seekers Jacob Wirt may have assisted. After all, aiding a fugitive slave was a crime, with punishment including prison time and a fine. He is not known to have left any written records of his activities, although his name is mentioned in some post-Civil War histories.

During the June 30, 1863, battle of Hanover, Union and Confederate forces clashed in the street outside of the Wirt house on Frederick Street. A historical marker near the site recalls the event. George A. Custer established his headquarters in Wirt’s house.

Jacob Wirt died shortly after the Civil War on November 8, 1867. He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hanover. His widow was among the prominent Hanoverians who later donated money to construct an impressive iron fountain in the town’s center square. It stood until 1905 when it was moved to Wirt Park (donated by his brother Henry) as traffic increased. The fountain was later sent to Clearwater, Florida.

1914 postcard of the fountain in Hanover’s Wirt Park.

Sources: Library of Congress, Fugitive Slave Narratives, 19-21; Thomas Davidson file, MSA SC 5496-1632, Maryland State Archives.