Underground Mystery

Under El Porton imports shop in Ellicott City, there's a tunnel folks are curious about: Is it just a hole or a former passageway to freedom for slaves?

December 01, 2003|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

An effort to collect fresh tales for this year's "Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City" ghost tours recently unearthed a tantalizing mystery that left tongues clucking up and down Main Street.

In the center of the historic district, among restaurants, antiques shops and galleries, the owners of a new Mexican imports shop, El Porton, thought they had bumped into something more electrifying than a ghoul in their basement.

"I don't have a ghost," co-owner Nancy Soto explained through a Spanish interpreter. "But I do have a big tunnel."

Not just any tunnel. Soto believed her shop sat atop a musty passage for the Underground Railroad.

News travels pretty quickly down the narrow streets of Ellicott City. And since the man who picked up the story from Soto was Bob Buker, the county's marketing manager, a previously unnoted bit of local lore suddenly became an item of intense local curiosity.

"Bob jogged up the hill back to the office as soon as he heard the story," said Rachelina Bonacci, Howard County Tourism's executive director. "He said, `You won't believe what Nancy just told me.'"

Bonacci visited the shop at 8227 Main St. to investigate for herself. Sure enough, behind a wall in a basement filled with colorful Patzcuaro chairs, Mexican artwork, masks and pottery, stood an imposing granite passageway - about 3 feet by 6 1/2 feet, just large enough for a tall man to pass through - closed off by cinderblock and crumbling brick.

"There have always been suspicions that there was an Underground Railroad connection in Ellicott City," Bonacci said. "But no one has ever found it."

The town has the kind of history and geographic characteristics that make it a likely place for escaped slaves to have passed through. The country's first railroad terminal was built here. Benja- min Banneker, often described as the "first black man of science," was born in Oella, just across the river. With the Patapsco River flowing at the lower end of Main Street, the railroad station perched above the river and a network of old farm roads that became the historic National Road running through town, Ellicott City certainly could have been a valued stop for runaway slaves who needed sure, stealthy transportation.

The town was also, early in its history, a Quaker settlement, further raising the likelihood of having abolitionists and active sympathizers in the area who would hide and transport escapees.

But while local folklore is abundant with tall tales of floods, Quakers, mill hands and ghosts, there has never been a single confirmed report of an Underground Railroad site - not a church, not a house, not even a tunnel. Proof has been hard to come by.

In tracing the story, Bonnaci found that the owners of El Porton first heard the story from their landlord, Kara Brook. Brook, in turn, had heard the story when she purchased the building in 2001 from a Southern Methodist church that, for years, used the building as a chapel.

"After I bought the property," Brook said recently, "I had a conversation with the minister and he pointed out the doorway in the basement and said it was an entrance to the Underground Railroad. It was blocked up so you couldn't go into it, but he said there was some idea that it might lead to the firehouse up the street. It all seemed very exciting."

That minister, Rev. Paul Schenck, now at the Bishop Cummins Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church in Catonsville, explained that the building had been a church since at least 1939, and before that it had been a residence, though it may have had connections with the Quakers. As a trustee of the Southern Methodist conference, to which the church was a member, Schenck said he had done a title search of the property and somewhere along the way he heard the tunnel was a passage for the Underground Railroad. He recalled being told that the tunnel crossed under Main Street, passed by the fire station and exited somewhere either behind or perhaps even inside the old Methodist church up the hill.

"At the time the [Southern Methodist] church owned it, the basement had only a dirt floor - very damp and very dark," Schenck said. "The tunnel was still open when the congregation left and the title transferred over to the conference. I can remember peering inside once and being able to stoop into it. But it was so dark and narrow no one would have dared walk through it."

Unfortunately, Schenck could not recall who told him about the tunnel's fascinating history.

Digging for facts

While news of the discovery at El Porton passed through town, Bonacci next called on advice from a local authority, Wylene Burch, who had just helped publish a history of the Underground Railroad in Howard County called Seeking Freedom. As director of the county's Center of African American Culture, Burch had spent several years identifying possible runaway slave passages in the county and recording the history of courageous escapes by slaves.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.