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A Small Note, A World of Meaning, and real ABOVE ground railroad cars for Freedom Seekers

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

I don't know their names, but this is their story.


This is one of those finds in the archive that seems sooo simple and yet holds so much meaning.

A few lines scribbled hurriedly on a note. I came across this in the Leon Gardiner Collection, Jacob C. White Correspondence at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Letter from William Whipper to Jacob C. White, Leon Gardiner Collection, Historial Society of Pennsylvania.

Columbia, April 26th, 1839
Mr. Jacob C. White
Dir Sir,
I send to your society (vigilance) a man and woman, the latter is fine, the former is in a very perilous situation having seen his “master” this afternoon. You will endeavor to render them the usual facilities.
Yours Respectfully,
Mr. Whipper

Each word and phrase of this letter carries with it a world of meaning.

Where it came from

Let’s start with where it came from …Columbia, Pennsylvania.

Columbia’s Black community was so strong in the 1830s that slave catchers would give up the chase once a freedom seeker made it across the Susquehanna bridge and into Columbia. The Black community there would envelop that person and the slave catchers would most likely never be able to find them again (Lancaster History, Page 175)

If Freedom Seekers crossed this bridge into Columbia, PA, they would find immediate safety in the Black community. Courtesy

Who it was From

Next - who it was from. William Whipper was a leader in the Philadelphia Black community in church, political and social life. He was also very rich and was in partnership with another very influential and very rich Black man named Stephen Smith.

William Whipper -Painting by William Matthew Prior, Courtesy Fenimore Art Museum (N0246.1961)

Together they had a huge lumber operation. They owned:

  • 2,250,000 feet of lumber

  • 22 railroad cars running on the railroad from Columbia to Philadelphia

  • $9,000 ($354,000 today) dollars worth of stock in the Columbia bridge company - (note that's the bridge that's mentioned above).

  • $18,000 ($709,000 today) dollars worth of stock in the Columbia bank

  • Smith owned 52 good brick houses in Philadelphia

  • A lumber yard at Broad and Noble

1858 Hexamer & Locher Map. Courtesy

Same area today - note the new Rail Park on the former Railroad tracks

Receipt from Smith and Whipper's Lumber Yard. Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Leon Gardiner Collection, Box 4g.

This receipt is from Smith and Whipper's Lumber yard. Ulysses B. Vidal was married to Stephen Smith's niece. You'll see his name prominently on this receipt. You can also see the location of the lumber yard at Broad and Noble streets. This receipt is from 1865 which demonstrates the longevity of this business. Notably it represents the purchase of coal by someone from the Bustill family who was purchasing the coal for the use of the Seventh Avenue Presbyterian church (which was originally known as the First African Presbyterian Church.)

Local Stephen Smith historian and Black Docent Collective leader Micheal Clemmons explains. On Noble street, you can see the railroad tracks. "If you follow them west across Broad street, they go across Center City, over the Schuylkill, to the inclined plane and eventually to Columbia."

This means that Smith and Whipper could do the following:

  • Schedule lumber shipments via train from Columbia to Philadelphia anytime they needed to - Possibly even door to door.

Since both Smith and Whipper were known conductors on the Underground Railroad they used these railroad cars to help transport freedom seekers safely to Philadelphia.

This is quite an incredible find that Clemmons is describing. It means that the 'Underground Railroad' in Philadelphia was ABOVE ground and using an actual, not a metaphorical, railroad and was developed by Smith and Whipper to provide a protected pathway into Philadelphia for freedom seekers.

Here's Micheal Clemmons reading from William Still's Journal C where William Still clearly describes the 'cars' used by Smith and Whipper.

Who it was to

Next - who it was to. Jacob C. White, Sr was a leader in the Vigilant Committee, a Black run organization created specifically to provide assistance to freedom seekers. See the notes from The Vigilant Committee, including case notes of people they assisted, here.

Jacob C. White, Sr. Image ownership: public domain

Now we start to see the layers of meaning. William Whipper, an Underground Railroad conductor in Columbia, PA is sending a note to Jacob C. White, a leader in the Vigilance Committee on a Friday in April, 1839.

What was in the note?

People in need and coded language on how to save them.

A woman, who was described as “fine”, and a man who was in a “perilous situation". Whipper says that the man's enslaver saw him in Columbia and was probably trying to send him back into slavery. They had to move quickly.

A freedom seeker sees his enslaver in April, 1839 in Columbia, PA. He realizes he needs to leave.

Somehow, even though this note is almost 200 years old, I can still sense the urgency.

The coded language tho: Whipper tells White that they will use “the usual facilities.”

I imagine that “the usual facilities” is a railroad car.

I can see the scene now. The man and the women in Whipper’s office, frightened for their lives. Whipper hastily writing the note, and handing it to the messenger. Then barking orders to an employee to get a train car loaded and ready to go to Philadelphia.

A man and women in danger meet with William Whipper who helps them get to safety in Philadelphia.

Given that it’s 1839 and it takes forever to go anywhere, having a train at your disposal is pretty great if you're an Underground Railroad conductor.

Then the railcar heads off to Philadelphia.

The normal passenger train took about 6 hours but I’m assuming that Whipper was using his own railcar with no passengers. So maybe the ride was a little shorter.

This might be the couple’s first visual of Philadelphia - a view across the Schuylkill from the incline plane.

Trains had to slow down at the Inclined Plane on the Philadelphia-Columbia railroad. Courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia.

Clemmons explains. “You can envision the train leaving Columbia with wood on it, with escapees in secret compartments. It gets to the inclined plane where the train has to stop and go very slowly. People might get off there and go to Boelson Cottage, where a Black woman named Cornelia Wells lived. Belmont Mansion in Fairmount park, where Cornelia worked, was a known Underground Railroad stop.”

I’m thinking that the train might also just go all the way to Whipper’s lumber yard at Broad and Noble.

I’m envisioning Jacob C. White meeting them there, the first connection in a team of many people who will help them start a new life of freedom in the Black Metropolis.

Go and see all the abolition sites in Fairmont Park on this June 24 walking tour with The Fairmont Park Conservancy - register here!

7/14/13 Update - This Operation is BIGGER than we thought

Today were contacted by The Goodridge Freedom Center on Instagram. The Goodrigde Freedom Center is a preserved home of a Black Underground Railroad conductor William. C. Goodridge, in York, PA.

Goodridge was a wealthy entrepreneur and as such he also owned railcars that had hidden compartments for freedom seekers.

A mural celebrating William C. Goodridge in York, PA

So this is really turning into a bigger story. It's an operation of railcars above ground. Get to York and you cross the bridge into Columbia. Get to Columbia and you make it into Philly. Get to Philly and you could go north or build a life there. Incredible!

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