Misconceptions and Untruths Told About the Underground Railroad

by Miriam R. Church Stem
Because many of the early homes built in Chagrin Falls had no basements and because there was no means of refrigeration many of the homes had a round place six or eight feet in diameter dug out and bricked up under the floor, especially if there was spring water running through, where the milk and butter were kept in the summer. These were usually entered through trap doors in the floor. My grandmother Church had one of these “cool cellars” with the trap door in her kitchen.

There was also one of these in the house built by Dr. Justus Vincent on Cleveland Street in 1840. This little cellar was entered through a trap door in the dining room floor. In the early 1900’s Bill Crawford, a wealthy playboy from Cleveland, bought this house and kept liquor down there.

In the days of the underground railroads, Dr. Vincent’s large home was an active station. In the 1860’s the family went “west” to Indiana, selling there home to William Hutchings, an Englishman and a bridge builder who operated a brick yard, also on Cleveland Street. Hutchings, soon after he moved into his new residence, built a tunnel from the house to the barn, a short distance, for his own convenience. In later years the remains of the tunnel and the cool cellar have been found by various owners of the property, and being told that the original owner conducted an underground railroad, many tales have been
broadcast about the tunnels and dungeons which are not true.

The house built in 1872 by J.W. Williams on Franklin Street was vacant for several years, thus becoming known as the “haunted house.” It had one of these cellars under the kitchen, so when children prowling around in the house found this they told their parents and this house became an underground railroad, but it was not built until 1872, long after the Civil War.

A new merchant moved into a building on the site of the home on Henry Church, Sr., which was an underground railroad. When I visited his gift shop he told me there was an underground railroad on that spot in the early days, and a tunnel ran from there down to the house at the end of the block. I said, “I’m sorry, there were no tunnels here. The drivers let the slaves out right at the front door.”

The building back of this merchant’s store was occupied by a boutique shop. One day a young costumer came in and said to the clerk that she had heard that a railroad formerly ran through there. (It is on a side hill.) “Yes, there was,” said the clerk and pointing to the window into the office she added, “that is the window where they sold the tickets.”

And so in spite of all the talk the past few years about the “underground”, so few people today understand what an “underground railroad” was.