The Underground Railroad in Southern Vermont

Occasionally the subject of Chester’s role in the Underground Railroad is raised. It has been rumored for many years that Pember Hazen’s house has a tunnel that fugitive slaves used.

For those who don’t know, Pember’s house is the large two-story brick home at the corner of First Avenue and Route 103 near Yosemite Firehouse.

A little history here is required. This brick house was built circa 1804 for Amos Heald. Amos was the son of Daniel Heald. Daniel came to Chester about 1777. By 1784 Daniel had begun building a wood-frame home on First Avenue. That home still stands today. The distance between Daniel’s home and his son’s Amos’ home is maybe 200 yards. Supposedly there is a tunnel connecting the two houses.

I’ve had a complete tour of the brick home owned by Amos Heald. No evidence could be found of a tunnel. Perhaps in the basement of Daniel’s home there is a tunnel entrance. I have never had a tour of that place. It has always been said this tunnel was part of the Underground Railroad and if not, why the tunnel? It might be as simple as father and son wanting their two houses connected so that in bad weather they could still visit each other.

In the book titled, “Vermont’s Anti-Slavery and Underground Railroad Record” by Wilbur Siebert I did find some documentation of Chester’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. The Heald homes are not mentioned as being part of the Underground. Below I give a few highlights.

First, Siebert describes Underground Railroad routes with these names: Western Trunk Line and the Eastern Trunk Line and its branches. The Western Line ran up the western side of the state.

The eastern “trunk line” drew its passengers from northern Massachusetts by way of the Connecticut River Valley. From Brattleboro, fugitive slaves were sent to Townsend. The next stop was Grafton where John Barrett provided safety. Chester was next.

Chester’s role

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Hutchinson’s grave in Brookside Cemetery. Photo by Ron Patch.

As early as 1834, Chester had an anti-slavery society, which numbered 60 members three years later. Here the homes of Ocamel Hutchinson and Asa Davis were havens for the seekers of freedom. It’s not unusual when doing research to find differences in dates or spelling of names. Hutchinson is buried in Brookside Cemetery where the spelling of his first name is “Oramel,” not “Ocamel.”

Asa Davis settled in Chester in 1812 and married Mary Hosmer in 1815. For many years, they were members of the Congregational Church. Davis was a hatter by trade and joined the Liberty Party when it was organized.

I seem to recall Ken Barrett telling during a cemetery tour that Hutchinson was the minister at the Congregational Church and an abolitionist. I think Ken told us Hutchinson was run out of the church, perhaps for his abolitionist views? Ken is away at the moment, so if I’m wrong, it’s my error, not Ken’s.

The Cross-State Route

The cross-state line came out of the Albany and Troy, New York areas. This route brought fugitive slaves into the Battenkill River Valley. A distinctive thing about the houses that served as stations was a row of bricks around their chimney were painted white. Slaves entering Vermont were told to look for these chimneys for safety. Another sign for fugitive slaves were black cast iron lawn jockeys holding a lantern. Today, people are offended by these lawn jockeys as being racist. They should be revered, not shunned.

At Manchester the route crossed the “trunk line” and passed to Chester and then into Springfield. Sometimes the fugitive slaves were sent to North Springfield to the Warren place. From Springfield and North Springfield, fugitives were sent to Perkinsville and on to Woodstock.

On the 1855 Doton map I found an A.W. Davis in Chester. This Davis lived out a short distance on the Grafton Road. As you are headed out the Grafton Road, just past the Quarry Road and probably less than a half-mile on the right was an old road when I was a kid. In my day if you walked up this old road there was a cellar hole at the top of the ridge with evidence that at one time there was a substantial farm here. This is where A.W. Davis lived. I think the property is owned by Quazzo today.

Instead of an old saying I offer a story Mike Erskine of Erskine’s Feed Store told me last week: A man about 70 years old was recently exploring the feed store when Mike approached and asked if he could help. The man was looking for a tube of BBs. Mike said they didn’t carry them any longer but Chester Hardware did. The man didn’t want to buy any he just wanted to know how much they cost today. Mike told him probably five dollars per tube.

  The man reached into his pocket and handed Mike five dollars saying, “This is for the tube of BBs I took from you when I was a young boy.”

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