The Underground Railroad in Waverly

Today’s blog post was written by our Destination Freedom Coordinator, EJ Murphy.

As a secretive system meant to subvert the institution of slavery, the Underground Railroad can be a difficult topic to research. While many believe that the Underground Railroad was a coordinated, systemic operation, participants in the Underground Railroad, known as “conductors,” often came and went in a kaleidoscopic fashion. Written documentation such as letters and diaries are extremely rare, citing again the need for secrecy. As most formerly enslaved people who settled in places such as Waverly were denied the opportunity to read and write while held in bondage, few first-hand accounts of their experiences exist as well. Much of the process of conducting the research that connects the dots involves piecing together bits of oral and local history with established general scholarship.

Wilbur H. Siebert’s seminal 1898 study, “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom,” is one of the (if not the) earliest works to highlight Waverly as a stop along the eastern Pennsylvania route, mapping the village as a northern destination after Stroudsburg and Wilkes-Barre. Siebert does not, however, list any Waverly residents as operators in Luzerne County (which at that time still incorporated current-day Lackawanna County) in his rostered appendix. Wilkes-Barre’s William Gildersleeve is the only Northeastern Pennsylvanian represented. Siebert does note, however, that “some disconnected places of resort in Northeastern Pennsylvania may have constituted a section of” the route connecting Southeastern Pennsylvania to the state’s northern tier and the southern tier of New York.

A more recent study, “The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania” by William Switala, provides more detail about Waverly’s role in the Underground Railroad. “Nestled in the northeastern extension of the Appalachian Mountain ridges and valleys, it was an excellent place for hiding freedom seekers on their way to New York.” Switala incorporates Waverly’s proximity to Native American paths that would have served as useful throughways to towns north, such as Montrose and Towanda in Pennsylvania, and Binghamton and Elmira in New York, with all of the aforementioned towns highlighted in the book, along with the possible routes to and from each detailed.

In 1916 a journalist for the Scranton Times, Alfred Twinning, published a full-page report titled “Waverly an Important Station On the ‘Underground Railroad.’” Twinning moved to Scranton forty years prior to penning the article and remarked, “I have heard more or less of the ‘Underground Railroad,’ at Waverly.” Twinning’s investigation was fueled by the recollections of what was, at the time, some of Waverly’s oldest residents. As he noted, “the people who knew the history of the coming of the colored people to Waverly, and who took part in the conduct of the railroad, or were mere youths at the time, have either died, moved away, or else lapse of memory has made it hard to get much local information, though I have been importuned by many people to endeavor to get what facts I could about the railway.”

At the center of Twinning’s findings was the story of George Keys. Keys, the first formerly enslaved man to settle in Waverly, escaped slavery in Maryland and eventually fought his way to Northeastern Pennsylvania. After settling in Wilkes-Barre and starting a family, Keys was made aware that his former enslaver sent agents across the Mason Dixon Line to bring his former “property” back home. Learning this, Keys fled and landed (likely at the guidance of Wilkes Barre’s sympathizers) at the home of Rodman Sisson. Sisson was a New England transplant and ardent anti-slavery advocate and did not hesitate to assist Keys in his attempt to elude the captors. After a close call with the pursing slave catchers, Sisson guided Keys to Waverly, where his daughter Esther resided and assisted. Instead of continuing north, Keys stayed and, unbeknownst to him at the time, helped establish Waverly’s African- American community. Sisson would later relocate to Waverly, and his family’s home still stands in the town as part of the Destination Freedom: Underground Railroad Walking Tour of Waverly, as does his headstone at Hickory Grove Cemetery and Keys’ headstone in the Waverly United Methodist Church Cemetery.

Leonard Batchelor, the other of Waverly’s Underground Railroad agents mentioned in the 1901 Scranton Republican article, is also a central figure of the Destination Freedom program as well as other works on Waverly’s Underground Railroad ties. Former Philadelphia Inquirer editor and Waverly native Jim Remsen’s 2017 study of his hometown, Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North, also puts Batchelor at the center of Waverly’s Underground Railroad and abolition network. As Remsen notes, Batchelor was a devout Presbyterian and “had a natural connection to the Presbyterian Gildersleeve down in Wilkes-Barre and to the New Schoolers in Montrose.” Remsen’s study remains the most detailed work on Waverly during the Civil War era.

While the history of the Underground Railroad and many of the national figures associated with the system is well known, Waverly’s role has been overshadowed and under-told. The Waverly Community House launched the Destination Freedom: Underground Railroad Walking Tour of Waverly program to make this history not only more widely known, but also readily available to the public. We are extremely proud that the Destination Freedom Program has been added to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom initiative, which aims to bring the story of the Underground Railroad to the public on a national level.

The program is the result of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998. As described on the program’s official website, “its mission, through collaboration with local, state and federal entities, as well as individuals and organizations, is to honor, preserve and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight, which continues to inspire people worldwide. Through its mission, the Network to Freedom helps advance the idea that all human beings embrace the right to self-determination and freedom from oppression.” We are honored to be a part of this amazing network of historical sites and programs, and we hope that you come to visit us soon to learn more about this amazing history!