Thursday, April 21, 2016

Memories of Harriet Tubman

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The news yesterday that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill in American currency brought back a flood of memories from my childhood.

I grew up in a very small village in Wisconsin (about 1500 people at the time) called Waterford. Just two miles away was another village called Rochester that had a population of about 500 people. Both villages were established in the 1800's and had very old buildings including some old hotels.

One of the oldest buildings in Rochester, the Old Union House Hotel, was supposedly a stop on the underground railroad.

When I first heard this story, I was quite young. I was intrigued. Could I go see the railroad? Where were the tunnels? I read every book I could on the underground railroad that I could find. I was always searching for photos of tracks and tunnels. Perhaps this started my interest in caves.

But I always ran into pictures of Harriet Tubman. Her story was so inspiring. She experienced harsh treatment and was beaten when she was a young woman. When she escaped to Philadelphia, she returned to help her family and others escape slavery. She continued to work against slavery and helped to build the underground railroad (my tunnels). She served in the Union Army as a guide and spy. She worked to develop jobs for freed slaves and built a support network to aid those who escaped slavery. Her real life was an adventure story that rivaled any young boy's adventure fiction that I was reading at the time such as the Hardy Boys mysteries. Her story was real, exciting, dramatic, and had an underground railroad! Her face, in photos of those books I found in the library, with its careworn kindness and strength, was an inspiration.

I don't quite remember when I realized that the underground railroad was a secret network that helped slaves escape captivity and not a real railroad. However, in my mind, I will always remember visualizing Harriet Tubman leading escaped slaves to a vast underground subway system that led to my little rural part of Wisconsin.

I don't think I was alone in imagining the underground network of tunnels. I looked at the Wikipedia page for Rochester, Wisconsin to see if they had any information about the underground railroad and the Old Union House Hotel. They did. Here is what is posted about it:

The old Union House hotel in the Village of Rochester was a part of the Underground Railroad. The trail started there, went under the Fox River, and ended at a house on the other side.

The odd thing about this entry, besides its very odd geography (why would you need a tunnel to go from one hotel to a nearby house in a rural area), is that it squares entirely with my memory of how the railroad was discussed in my region. It was described as a set of tunnels that went underground from the hotel. It was a physical place that was localized instead of a vast national network of individuals and safe houses. Certainly the Old Union Hotel was a safe house, but I still like to imagine Harriet Tubman leading others to safety via a vast network of tunnels that ended near my boyhood home.

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