Damariscotta presentation at Skidompha Library on “The Underground Railroad in Maine.” A wonderful crowd!
THE HISTORY of the Underground Railroad here in Maine — its heroes and heroines, its “safe houses” and escape routes — continues to grow in width and breadth as I speak around the state.
The number of selfless, brave Mainers who dared to break the Fugitive Slave Law — and the prison and fines it mandated — is humbling to a self-centered 21st-century mind.
The most recent examples of bravery come from the Mid-Coast where in the spring of 1842 the Rev. Austin Willey of Hallowell was badly beaten and bloodied by an angry mob and unceremoniously thrown out of a hall in Damariscotta for preaching abolition.
Several local sources at my talks in Damariscotta and Orr’s Island came forward to mention three possible “safe houses” in Damariscotta, one in Bristol, one in Damariscotta Mills, one in Newcastle and one on Bailey Island.
Despite risky repercussions from pro-slavery neighbors (yes, half of Mainers reportedly supported the barbaric institution), the area was apparently bubbling over with mostly white people who saw the plight of slaves and determined to help.
(In many cases it’s difficult to be positive that a home was a “safe house” even if it contained a hidden room, or a false basement. Because it was illegal to house a fugitive, people kept those secrets close to the vest. They’d know who was bringing slaves to their homes and to whom they were to transport them… Any more knowledge was dangerous.)
That’s one reason I love the letter that Lenny and Danielle Goodine shared with me. When they bought their home in Palermo in 2017 they discovered the letter in a hidden room behind a closet. Written by Union soldier Charles to his wife in 1863, it said:
“I have missed you so very much as the fighting has been very heavy for the past few days. God, however, has been my stay. Without His help, and the thought of you, my love, I would have given up long ago. Many men in my camp have nearly given up hope of ever seeing their family again.
“There are times, my love, that verse comes to mind: “Behold, I have graven thee on the palms of My hands: Thy walls are continually before me.”
“God has done many things for me these past months. Things I could not even imagine.
“The farm is being well taken care of by your guests, I trust. Just make sure that they are not seen. Pretty soon you should send them on their way to Canada. Congress has enacted a new law, billed as the Fugitive Slave Law. Slave owners from the southern states can come to the north and recapture their slaves. Those harboring these fugitives can be arrested for doing so.
“Be careful. Please write to me. Your loving Charles
That was new information, found in 2017. So if you happen upon history please do share the discovery, whether it concerns the Underground Railroad, or any other part of lost history. Those heroes and places of significance deserve to be recognized and honored. And today’s generations should be informed about both the heroics and the evil perpetrated in the past.
Damariscotta’s overflow crowd had an “artistic view” of the Powerpoint presentation.
My wife, Loy, and I loved Orr’s and Bailey Island Yacht Club’s airy room. The club’s hospitality was pretty top-of-the-line as well. Thank you, all, and for one member’s tip that “solid information” confirms the chapel at the Maine State Police Academy in Vassalboro (formerly the chapel at Coburn Academy) was a “safe house.”