In the early 1850’s, a young man named Samuel Denson came to Cumberland from Mississippi. He was and escaping slave who had somehow come up the Underground Railroad line that led here. Cumberland was, of course, in slave territory, but Samuel Denson decided not to continue on his own journey to freedom, but rather to stay here, pretending to be a freedman, and to work for the freedom of others.
He conspired with the Rev. David Hillhouse Buel, Rector of Emmanuel Parish, who had been active at other Underground Railroad sites in Sykesville and Westminster, MD before coming to Emmanuel in 1847. Rev. Buel gave him the job of Sexton (custodian) of the Church. Denson’s job included keeping the Church and Rectory looked after, keeping the furnace going and ringing the Church bell, and also doing custodial work at the Allegany Academy.
These three buildings are on a line with each other that runs about 200 yards. They are connected by a tunnel that once was part of the defenses of Fort Cumberland. In the 1850’s a steam line ran through this tunnel from the furnace under the Church to the Academy and beyond to the Rectory. It was a natural part of Samuel Denson’s job to pass between these buildings day and night.
There was another part of the old Fort’s defense works that ran from under the east end of the Church down the hill to the banks of Will’s Creek. In those days, this was an area where rail lines came together at the Terminus of the C&O Canal. This section was called “Shanty Town” because it was full of saloons, brothels and the shacks where canal workers and lowlifes lived. It was a natural hiding place for someone on the run. It was also at the end of the C&O Canal towpath, which was a major line on the Underground Railroad that ran up the Valley of Virginia and met the Potomac near Harpers Ferry.
Escaping slaves who had reached the Shanty Town section of Cumberland were instructed to hide out there and await a signal for their next move. It was Samuel Denson’s job to send them a message by ringing the Church bell in a special coded way, and then bring them up the hill by the old Fort’s earthwork, through an iron gate that led the through a passage to safety under the Church.
It was beneath the Church that they would rest a day, receiving food and aid from Rev. Buel and other abolitionists and conspirators. When night fell again, they would go down the tunnel that led them through the basement of the Academy and into the basement of the Rectory. Then they would go out the Rectory cellar door, which in those days was in an unpopulated part of town, and meet up with the transportation that would take them across the Mason Dixon Line, just 4 miles away, or up another rout that would lead them to the Land of Freedom. For many, the tunnels under Emmanuel Parish Church were their last Underground Railway stop in slave territory.
The tunnels are open for tours at various times through the year and by making arrangements.