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Underground Railroad in Lycoming County, Penn.

The story of the Underground Railroad in Lycoming County contains many
heroic and courageous persons but none towers over the story so literally
and figuratively, as does Daniel Hughes.

The Underground Railroad ran from the American South through the
northeastern states to Canada from the 1790s until the Civil War. Lycoming
County, because of its strategic location, was one of the most important
stops on the road to freedom for escaping slaves. There were two main
centers of Underground Railroad activity in Lycoming County: the
Pennsdale-Muncy area and the area that Daniel Hughes lived just north of
the city of Williamsport known, at the time, as “Nigger Hollow.” Later, it
more decently and appropriately was renamed “Freedom Road.”
Hughes was a man of towering stature, standing between six feet-seven
inches and six-feet-10 inches, weighing approximately 300 pounds. He moved
to the Williamsport area in 1828 where he married an African-American
woman, Ann Rotch.

Hughes’ occupation as a Lumber River craftsman operating on the
Susquehanna River between Williamsport and the Baltimore area was the
means that enabled him to become involved in smuggling escaped slaves
along the Underground Railroad to Williamsport. He then would hide the
fugitive slaves at his house located in the vine covered, woods covered
area northwest of Williamsport. It was a natural haven. The haven aspect
was further reinforced by a series of caves that were located on and near
the Hughes property that also further served as a place of refuge for the
runaway slaves.

It took great courage and resourcefulness to “conduct” these escaped
slaves along the Underground Railroad. Hughes, his wife and 16 children
exposed themselves to great risk in their quest to help the slaves “Follow
the North Star to Freedom” or as an old Underground Railroad song stated,
“Follow the Drinking Gourd.” It was against the law to assist runaway
slaves, punishable by imprisonment and fines. Also, many people in the
area were unsympathetic to the runaways’ plight and the Hughes and others
who aided them were subject to harassment and possible physical violence
or even death.

Hughes would most often operate on moonless nights that greatly lessened
the possibility of detection by the always-present slave catchers. The
slave catchers became more of a hazard after the passage of the “Fugitive
Slave Act of 1850,” that allowed slave catchers to operate in the northern
states with no legal restrictions. To help thwart the slave catchers
Hughes and his sons often would stretch horsehair from one side of trails
to the other hoping to catch these bounties hunting slave catchers off
guard as they traveled by horse. As the slave catchers came to these areas
they would be knocked from their horses and either slowed down or deterred
from continuing.

Hughes son Robert remembered these times many years later and reminisced
as an old man stating, “We would hide them in the woods in brush houses. I
was just a little boy, but I remember very well carrying meals out to them
in the woods. They usually traveled in groups of two or three men.”
He continued, “Often patrollers would come to our place looking for
runaways. They never caught anyone at our place. Rich people and good
church people in Williamsport, mostly Quakers helped in the work.”
Hughes and his son would conduct the runaways to the next station in Trout
Run as they made their way north to Elmira and eventually into Canada
where the runaways were not subject to the “Fugitive Slave Act.” The
Hugheses contributed further to the African-American community by donating
a portion of their land as a cemetery for African-Americans. Among those
buried in the cemetery are nine African-American veterans of the Civil
War.

There is a Pennsylvania Historical Marker at the site of the
cemetery, and loyal sock Township has recently taken over maintenance.
The story of Hughes and the other courageous Lycoming Counties who
participated in helping with the Underground Railroad is detailed in an
excellent documentary film. “Follow the North Star to Freedom,” made by
area documentary maker Karen Frock. Interestingly enough, one of the
primary persons assisting Frock in the film was Mamie Sweeting Diggs, the
great-granddaughter of Daniel Hughes. She has spoken far and wide
preserving the courageous legacy and story of her special great-grandfather.

Daniel Hughes: Giant of Freedom Road
By Lou Hunsinger Jr.
Williamsport Sun-Gazette

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