The History of the Underground Railroad In Jersey City

 

From the 1820s to 1860, between forty and one hundred thousand enslaved African Americans escaped bondage through the Underground Railroad, a secret route through a series of safe houses that ended in free northern states, Canada, or Mexico. When one thinks about the Underground Railroad, Jersey City typically isn’t a location that comes to mind. However, Jersey City played a crucial role as a stop in the Underground Railroad for many seeking their freedom.

 

The “Slave State of the North”

Jersey City wasn’t a common port because of the locals’ sympathy towards escaped slaves, but rather its geographical location. In fact, New Jersey was quite a hostile environment for abolitionists. Due to New Jersey’s strong financial ties to the south, whose economy was dependent on slave labor, there was a great deal of resistance to ending chattel slavery. Reportedly, in the 1830s, founder and editor of the Evening Journal (for which Journal Square is named) Major Z. K. Pangborn, once gave an open-air speech in support of abolition, and was attacked by the public. The tensions surrounding slavery caused the faith based community to split, which resulted in the creation of the anti-slavery Tabernacle Church. What’s worse, tempting cash rewards were offered for individuals who turned in escaped slaves or those suspected of harboring them. This dangerous environment makes the hometown heroes who helped the runaways even more admirable for their courage.

Underground railroad in JC
Slaves being assisted on their journey to freedom. Photo courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

 

Escape Routes

There were several escape routes that converged in Jersey City, with many of the runaways coming by way of Camden or Burlington Counties where they found communities of sympathetic Quakers. Some arrived at Harismus Cove, exiting at what is now Exchange Place. In the 19th century, the location of the Jersey City Medical Center was mostly thick forest, providing stealth protection for those en-route to their safe house “stations”. Others arrived at the Morris Canal Basin. There, abolitionists would hide escapees in brick tunnels on the waterfront, or arrange for ferry and coal boats to transport them across the Erie Canal or Hudson River (code named the “River Jordan”). Once across the water, they could flee to New England, upstate New York, or Canada. People who owned boats crossing the canal at the time were said to have looked for runaways, offering them a free ride if they assisted in unloading the cargo.

Underground railroad in JC
Map showing the lines of travel of Fugitive Slaves. Photo courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

 

Hometown Heroes

The Holden House (79 Clifton Place), is the only remnant of the Underground Railroad still in existence in Jersey City. David L. Holden and his cousin Edward were passionate abolitionists, and helped countless people to freedom. David, an amateur astronomer, had an observatory at the top of his home, which he used to send and receive messages about the location of escapees. The cellar in this house hid up to 25 people at a time and was even equipped with a fireplace for their comfort.

Underground railroad in JC
The Holden House. Photo by Janine Ngai

Two of the most impressive Jersey City abolitionists were brothers Thomas and John Vreeland Jackson. The Jackson brothers were born slaves and freed in their late twenties to become oyster men on the Hudson River. Thomas and John found financial success, enabling them to purchase six acres of land in 1857 alongside what is now Winfield Ave. They were one of the first (if not THE first) African Americans to own land in Jersey City. Shortly after they bought the land, the Morris Canal company paid them for a portion of it to build the canal itself. The close proximity of the Jackson Brothers’ property to the Canal allowed them to be a safe house for a large number of escaped slaves. In 2001 a plaque at the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail station was erected in honor of Thomas and John Vreeland Jackson to commemorate their contributions to African Americans seeking their freedom.

Jackson Brothers plaque located at the MLK light rail station stop. Photo by Janine Ngai

A medical doctor and a former clerk of the Common Council of Jersey City, Dr. Henry D. Holt used his home at 134 Washington Street on the edge of the Morris Canal as a “depot” on the Underground Railroad. The Reverend John Milton Holmes hid escapees in the basement of the previously mentioned Tabernacle Church. Quaker John Everett, a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad in JC, warehoused goods in his home for the runaways and offered guidance for their continuing journey. Along with the names mentioned above, there were many other unknown individuals who risked their lives and safety as stations, conductors, and those just lending a helping hand to the escapees.

Sculpture portraying canal conductor helping a slave family escape across New Jersey. Photos by Janine Ngai.

 

Free at Last

It is estimated that between twenty and forty thousand people may have come through the Underground Railroad in JC. The very nature of the Underground Railroad was to stay shrouded in secrecy, so it’s impossible to know how many people truly came through, and how many Jersey City residents quietly helped them through. Either way, there is no denying Jersey City was a vital lifeline for people who were seeking their freedom in this harrowing chapter of American history.