WAVERLY TWP. — In the early to mid- 19th century, the Underground Railroad was established and used by African-American slaves to escape into free states and Canada. This was done with the assistance of abolitionists and allies sympathetic to their cause. Many of the approximately 50,000 runaways fled areas such as Maryland and Virginia in search of freedom.
For many, one significant piece of their journey was right here in the Abingtons. Due to its location, many of the runaways intended to pass through on their trek northward to areas such as Montrose, New York and Canada. But because of the sense of community and refuge the local abolitionists provided, a great deal of these people settled down in Waverly and the surrounding areas, making this small corner of Northeast Pennsylvania a remarkable part of our country’s history.
When arriving in Waverly, runaway slaves were met by abolitionists who assisted them in providing them shelter, often hiding them in their homes and wagons before guiding them toward their next destination. This was often a dangerous feat, both for the abolitionists and runaways, whose masters frequently came searching for them.
One particular example of this is the story of fugitive George Keys’ eventful arrival in Waverly from Maryland. Keys, intending to make his way to Canada, arrived in Waverly with slave-catchers close behind. He knocked on local abolitionist and farmer Rodman Sisson’s door desperate for help. Sisson quickly ushered Keys to the fireplace in an upstairs bedroom where he climbed into the chimney to avoid detection. Predictably, the slave-catchers made it to Sisson’s home a short while later. He allowed them to search inside and was able to deter them from entering the second floor bedroom. After they left, he moved George Keys to a small building behind his home, where he remained until Sisson’s daughter Ester was able to safely secure Keys’ welfare.
Stories such as this make up the vast historical landscape of the Abingtons and demonstrate its significance within the national narrative of the Underground Railroad.
In fact, because of people like Rodman Sisson, many of the runaways ended up staying in the small village indefinitely, becoming educated, building churches and homes and raising families there.
Carbondale Road, a previously undeveloped stretch of land, became home to the runaway settlement in the mid to late 1800s. Sisson’s daughter Ester Stone and her husband John owned the land and leased it to the runaways on installment plans so they could develop the area. Gradually, homes were built and individuals and families settled into their properties. They obtained jobs as handymen, housekeepers and nannies to support themselves and integrate into the community.
As word traveled along the Underground Railroad system, more fugitives arrived in Waverly with the intention of joining the emerging African-American settlement.
In 1854, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was built on Carbondale Road and was symbolic of this burgeoning community. It was at this location that former runaways learned to read and write, and they also found a sense of bonding and comradery. The church thrived for many years and its former building is now occupied as a private residence. During its time of operation, it stood as a symbol of hope and unity for those fleeing from a lifetime of bondage and slavery.
Ultimately, the Abingtons remain symbolic of hope, bravery and community during one of the most significant examples of civil unrest in the United States.
For those who wish to travel back in time and see the aforementioned locations as well as many others, the Destination Freedom Underground Railroad Walking Trail Map is available at the Waverly Community House.
This map provides a self-guided walking tour through Waverly, containing the properties of the runaways and the abolitionists who risked their lives to help them. People can also visit the Waverly Welcome Center to view a mural of the map on the ceiling and obtain more informational materials.
For more information, or to obtain a map, call the Waverly Community House at 570-586-8191 extension 5.
Take the tour
The Destination Freedom Underground Railroad Walking Trail Map, available at the Waverly Community House (Comm), provides a self-guided walking tour through Waverly Township. For more information, call the Comm at 570-586-8191 extension 5.