The rector of Emmanuel Parish at the time was Rev. David Hillhouse Buel, who had been active at other Underground Railroad sites in Sykesville and Westminster, MD before coming to Emmanuel in 1847. Rev. Buel worked alongside the Sexton (custodian) of the church. The sexton’s job included keeping the church and rectory looked after, keeping the furnace going and ringing the church bell, and also doing custodial work at the Allegany Academy.
These three buildings are on a line with each other that runs about 200 yards (Emmanuel Parish Church is at 16 Washington St. The Library (Allegany Academy) is at 31 Washington St. and the old rectory is at 29 Prospect Sq.). They are connected by a tunnel that once was part of the defenses of Fort Cumberland. In the 1850s a steam line ran through this tunnel from the furnace under the church to the Academy and beyond to the Rectory. It was a natural part of the sexton’s job to pass between these buildings day and night.
There was another part of the old fort’s defense works that ran from under the east end of the church down the hill to the banks of Will’s Creek. In those days, this was an area where rail lines came together at the terminus of the C&O Canal. This section was called “Shanty Town” because it was a poor area where canal workers and black community members lived. It was a natural hiding place for someone on the run. It was also at the end of the C&O Canal towpath, which was a major line on the Underground Railroad that ran up the valley of Virginia and met the Potomac near Harpers Ferry.
Escaping slaves who had reached the Shanty Town section of Cumberland were instructed to hide out there and await a signal for their next move. According to the oral history tradition, it was the sexton’s job to send them a message by ringing the church bell in a special coded way, and then bring them up the hill by the old fort’s earthwork, through an iron gate that led them through a passage to safety under the church.
Oral history then tells us that they would rest a day beneath the church, receiving food and aid from Rev. Buel and other abolitionists and conspirators. When night fell again, they would go down the tunnel that led them through the basement of the Academy and into the basement of the rectory. Then they would go out the rectory cellar door, which in those days was in an unpopulated part of town, and meet up with the transportation that would take them across the Mason-Dixon Line, just 4 miles away, or up another route that would lead them to the Land of Freedom. In this story, the tunnels under Emmanuel Parish Church were the last Underground Railway stop in slave territory for many.