April 1st, 2009 by sashafaith
I was first inspired to write about our old home in May of 2007 when Jasia of CreativeGene asked for blog submissions about a family home. In general, I’d say most of our family homes were modest at best, but we once lived in a beautiful old home that also had a great story! I diligently researched so I could back up the legend with the facts. However, unable to travel to the area, and lacking funds to pay for on-site help, I hit roadblocks over and over in my research and wound up abandoning my draft. But I still want to tell you about it …so (almost two years later) here goes.
When I was just two years old I lived in a big beautiful mansion which was also known as Seven Gables in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was not Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, which was the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. However, my house did have seven gables and was part of the several acre estate which shares that name as well.
My mom told me that when we lived there the house was showing its age and very run down. In a college town, then as now, it’s easier to find a bunch of “kids” to rent and share a big dilapidated house. We lived there with my dad’s bandmates in Black Forest Rhodes, along with their families. The band played at Dickinson College and also played gigs in several states from Virginia to the North East. I have very hazy memories of this house, beyond the image of the darkness of the stairs, playing with the kids we lived with, I might even remember the steps to the basement (I picture these steep, creaky, basement stairs with no risers and VERY high up – but again, I was two…)
We lived there probably less than a year before we moved back to New Jersey. Some years later when I asked my mom about the house, she told me she heard it was being used as a fraternity house. It was around that time that she also told me the house was once part of the Underground Railroad.
To me it was a cool tidbit of fact about our old house. It wasn’t until I considered Jasia’s blog invitation to write about a home we lived in that I thought again about this house, and how this story needed to be investigated and shared on my blog.
My mom had been told the Underground Railroad story by the caretakers who lived in another small building on the property. She had seen in the basement a rough wall and a boarded up area, behind which was the tunnel that was supposed to have led to the caretaker cottage.
The first person to burst my bubble was George F. Nagle, editor at Afrolumens: Central Pennsylvania’s journey from slavery to freedom. This site is such a wonderful resource of history, and I am very grateful for his efforts. Mr. Nagle informed me that despite it’s name, there is absolutely NO historic documentation of an underground tunnel of any kind being used in the Underground Railroad. I honesty believed that there would be at least a few actual tunnels featured in the Underground Railroad. My immediate thought was, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be something if this house just happens to feature the ONLY use of an actual underground tunnel!”
The second problem with the Underground Railroad story was that the house we lived in wasn’t built until about 1925. The house that probably stood there from about 1835 had burned down in 1925. However, it was quite likely that the 1925 house was built upon the foundation of the older house, and perhaps I would find documentation of an active abolitionist family living there during the right time period.
Debbie, one of the staff members of the Cumberland County Historical Society emailed me this info from their folder containing the History of Seven Gables (my notes in parentheses):
The earliest known owners of Seven Gables were Richard and Thomas Penn. (The sons of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. Mr. Nagle told me they were the first owners only in the sense that they owned everything west of the Susquehanna) In 1799 John and Richard Penn, (Richard’s sons) Proprietaries of Pennsylvania, sold 47 acres to Jacob Crever. No improvements to the property are mentioned in the deed book. Mr. Crever sold the land to William Moore in 1809. The record of this sale notes improvements.
Mr. Nagle wrote that I should determine who owned the property between 1830 and 1850, and whether a house stood there. It was during those years that the Underground Railroad was most active. But I soon ran into trouble. William Moore, who had purchased the land in 1809, died in 1812, unmarried and intestate, two years after his brother George had died leaving a wife and four children. There was a dispute over William’s estate when another of William’s brothers, Lawson Moore, swindled his sister -in-law and her children out of much of their part of the estate. I was fortunate in stumbling across the website of a researcher who had spent a great deal of time reading through that case. But in the end, I don’t know who came into possession of the house in 1812.
Debbie at Cumberland County Historical Society also shared:
The property passed through the hands of several owners in the first part of the nineteenth century. In 1835 there was a seventy-acre estate known as Cottage Hill. The tax records of 1855 reveal that the central twelve acres was owned separately. There was a two-story house and a barn on it.
In the early 1860’s J. W. Bosler purchased eleven central acres, which were described as a plantation. By 1867, Mr. Bosler had built a two-and-one-half story brick “villa.” The tax records indicate the presence of both a log and a frame house also on the property. The property passed through the hands of several owners in the first part of the nineteenth century. In another record I found the notation, “Cottage Hill Farm and Cottage purchased from C. Stayman by James W. Bosler.”
Of course, the Underground Railroad, it’s “Conductors” and “Stations” were closely guarded secrets. I learned on Mr. Nagel’s site, that although Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780, the “phase out” period through which slavery was finally ended was dragged out for many years, generally through greedy slave owners bending (or breaking) the rules that would have emancipated children of slaves, and slaves born after a certain date after 28 years of service.
Carlisle had residents who felt very passionately about the subject of slavery on both sides of the issue, and there were several violent clashes between them. Dickinson college had a good number of abolitionist supporters, despite also being the college of choice for many families with sons from the South. (Years ago I found the text of a letter warning Southern families against sending their sons to Dickinson, because they would turn to the abolitionist cause.) Carlisle was also situated on a known route to freedom. Still, it’s highly unlikely I’d ever find documentation of a station at the house. It is far more likely that I would be able to identify an owner or perhaps a few generations of a family who were known abolitionists. It’s possible that in the time between its ownership by William Moore and Christian Stayman, the owner of the property was involved with the Underground Railroad, but those names are still unknown to me.
In 1850, Christian Stayman (born about 1801) lived in Carlisle (perhaps in this same house) and was a member of the Dickinson Board of Trustees from 1850 to 1991. He did not own slaves. His sons were Joseph, Milton and Christian, born 1840. A reference to Christian Stayman (Sr.) mentioned that he and his brothers Abraham and Joseph were members of a prominent Methodist family in Cumberland County in the mid 1800s. The Methodist church was split over the issue of slavery, one of the causes of the splintering of the Free Methodist Church from the main group. I imagine that even if a man’s congregation wasn’t fully in support of the abolitionist cause, if his personal conscience dictated it, he would aid and support the cause even to the point becoming a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Dickinson College’s House Divided says J. W. Bosler entered Dickinson college in 1854, but in his junior year he moved west, returning to Carlisle in 1866. If so, he came into possession of the property too late to have played an active role in the Underground railroad. You can read some more about him here and here.
The house is shown below as it appeared in Carlisle Old and New in 1905, still the home of the Bosler family.
The Bosler house burned down in 1925, and the next owner, Eugene Martin, built the house that we lived in about two years later. Some years after we lived there it was being used as a fraternity house, and it was finally razed probably in the late 1980’s. If there was a tunnel on the property, it must be long gone. Maybe some day I will learn that the house was indeed a Station on the Underground Railroad. Until then, I hope my efforts so far will bring that day closer.
Carlisle Old and New, Civic Club of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Printed by J. Horace McFarland Company. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Copyright, 1907 Page 150