In the 1840’s, 50’s, and 60’s Elmira played a big part in helping fugitive slaves escape to freedom via the underground railroad. Because of it’s proximity to the Chemung Canal as well as railways it made it an ideal stop on the road to freedom for nearly 800 people. 

Abolitionists, people who advocated against the enslavement of other people, resided in Elmira and they were the ones who pushed and helped in the Underground Railroad.  Rachel Dworkin, archivist at the Chemung County Historical Society, explains why there was such an upwelling of support for getting ex-slaves to freedom in Elmira. “There were people here who wanted to support it,” Said Dworkin. “So there was a ground swell, enough money, enough houses, enough jobs that they could help these people.”

When ex-slaves would arrive in Elmira, they would need some attention before they could continue on to their next location. “A lot of the time slaves would arrive without sufficient clothing, they were hungry, they would need shelter. So people would provide them with money, or provide them with jobs or provide them with shelter or food,” Dworkin said. 

Prior to 1850, organizations were formed to help former slaves escape to a life of freedom. A group of those people or abolitionists formed the Park Church in Elmira in protest to slavery and the laws that went along with it. However, in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act was passed which made it illegal to help any former slave escape to the North. 

Any person attempting to assist an escapee could be charged 1,000 dollars, which in today’s economy is equivalent to 29,000 dollars, or they could face jail time. However, if you were African American and were caught escaping or assisting an escapee you could be sold back into slavery. It took a lot of courage and moral fortitude for all those involved.

A monument has been placed in Woodlawn Cemetery that lists all the names as well as the burial locations of many of the people who helped during this time period. According to Jenny Monroe, Park Church Historian, John W. Jones was one of the most notable contributors. 

“John Jones kept the names of all 800 slaves that he helped rescue, without losing one in Elmira,” Said Monroe.

But there’s also another name worth mentioning that people may not associate with the Underground Railroad in Elmira and that is Fredrick Douglas. It was by chance that he crossed paths with Jervis Langdon, a relative of Mark Twain, while he was on his way through Millport on his journey to the North. 

“On his way when he was in his 20’s he stopped at the home of the Langdon’s and they helped him for a few days and he was sick and they helped him.” Said Monroe, she continues by saying, “They got the story right from the horses mouth about what he was escaping from and it turned their hearts upside down and they decided this would be their life’s work.”

The Langdon’s never forgot about that seed of empathy planted by Douglas’ story. Without that important moment it is possible that the course of Elmira’s history would have been much different.