Emmanuel Episcopal Church stands on a hill overlooking downtown Cumberland and was built in 1848-1851. The edifice rests on the remains of a British colonial fort built in 1755 that was once commanded by George Washington. Beneath the floor of the church sanctuary are portions of the cellar, magazines, and earthen works of Fort Cumberland. Long standing oral tradition and accompanying academic research reveal that tunnels beneath the church were used as a station on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.
The Rev. David Hillhouse Buel, a known Union sympathizer, came to Emmanuel in 1847. Buel had been active with the Underground Railroad prior to coming to Emmanuel. During Buel’s tenure there was an increase in the number of slaves as well as freemen listed in the parish records. In the early 1850s Mr. Samuel Denson arrived in Cumberland having escaped from slavery in Vicksburg, Miss. He became sexton at the church. Denson is buried at Rose Hill cemetery, which is owned and operated by Emmanuel Church.
The Underground Railroad was a vast and highly illegal conspiracy. The Emmanuel Church congregation was unaware of its presence within their church at the time. If caught by the authorities any black person involved would simply be hanged. Few documents remain of this heroic history. The African American community of Cumberland has always known this story, passing it along in family and community lore. Academics have mapped and traced the Underground Railroad through Cumberland. It was featured on the Travel Channel in 2014.
Just below the church was the area of town where rail lines came together. It was a shanty town called Walnut bottom. It was a natural hiding place for someone on the run. When the opportunity was right during the night Denson would signal with the church bell by incorrectly noting the hour and the runaway slaves would know to enter the tunnels. Denson would eventually take them through to the rectory. From there the slaves could make their way across the Mason-Dixon Line only four miles away.
Learn more: https://www.emmanuelparish.ang-md.org
16 Washington Street
Cumberland, Maryland 21502
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