Underground Railroad

by Sarah S. Anderson

In Bethlehem, at least two houses served as stations on the Underground Railroad, that pre-Civil War system of linked "safe houses" where thousands of escaped black slaves found sympathy, food, and rest on their way north to freedom in Canada.

One was the former Bird Tavern, a white frame house built by Joshua Bird on the northwest corner of the Bethlehem Green. The other, a large center-chimney Colonial, stands on the northeast corner of Hard Hill Road and Route 132.   Built around 1737, it too, first served as a tavern and was later owned by the Camp family.

Both houses had plenty of room for family and guests, along with hiding places under stairs, in attics or in basements where an escapedslave could be protected by the home's station master."

Being a station master or conductor on the Underground Railroad was no easy task. In the years preceding the Civil War, Joshua Bird was "many times routed out at night to go to some station south of Bethlehem to get some runaway slave or to take one or more to the next station north," explains a family history written in 1938.

In pre-Civil War Connecticut, many citizens found it easy to ignore slavery since it didn't affect them personally. Some local citizens kept slaves, according to the first census in 1790. Of the 1,056 persons counted in Bethlehem, four were slaves. By state law, they were not to be held in bondage beyond their 25th birthday.

Other regional considerations made it possible to quietly acquiesce to the South's slave economy. Eli Whitney, who invented the cotton gin, which helped make slavery profitable, lived in Connecticut.It was not unusual for young men from this state to find employment in the South as slave drivers or tutors in the homes of planters.

But even in a pro-slavery climate, many Connecticut residents, both whites of all religious denominations and free blacks, took the risk and operated "stations" or served as "conductors," as did Joshua Bird.

Escaping slaves, often entire families, traveled north by any means possible. Thousands hid inside cotton or other shipments headed for the North. Others disguised themselves and traveled by wagon or on foot. usually at night, always following the North Star. Spirituals are full of references to those dangerous journeys, always in the biblical framework of "trouble traveling over Jordan" or "heading for Canaan." Former slaves also helped run the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman returned to the South 19 times at great personal risk to lead hundreds to freedom.

In whatever way slaves left the plantations and traveled north, many arrived first in New York, then, moving on foot or in wagons, traveled along the Connecticut shore toward New Haven. At that point, two routes headed north. One was from North Guilford and Meriden to Hartford and Springfield. The other went through Southington and Bethlehem.

The owner of the house on Hard Hill Road, claims to have some personal knowledge of the historical events that took place there. According to early town records, an escaping slave couple stopped for a safe rest sometime in the early 1830's with their 9 year old daughter, Emily. The girl had fallen sick and was cared for by Bethlehem's doctor at the time, possibly Dr. Conant Catlin or Dr. Lyman Catlin. Emily may have suffered from a severe strep infection called quinsy. Legend has it that as Emily lay sick, her parents told her they would return for her after they were free and had the papers to prove it. But they never returned. Possibly they never reached freedom themselves. Emily died in the house on Hard Hill. She was buried in a small plot protected by a flat, unmarked piece of granite, just outside the front door.

The current owner of the house said some of his guests have a strong sense of Emily's presence, as she impatiently awaits her parents' return. Recently, in telling this tale to a youngster who doubted the ghost's existence the owner said he didn't believe in ghosts either. Later, he noticed that the tall clock and the table clock in his parlor had stopped. That struck him as odd, since he always wound them on a regular schedule, but he reset them and they started again. The next morning he found both clocks had stopped again precisely at 10 minutes before midnight. "I believe in you, Emily," he shouted. He then reset the clocks and they have stayed right on time ever since.

One can only hope that Emily has found freedom at last in Bethlehem.