Underground Railroad had a key stop in West Middletown

February 22, 2014
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A family of early black settlers in West Middletown poses for local photographer Frank France circa 1900.
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John Brown, left, greets Matthew McKeever in a woodcut print of the abolitionists created by an unknown artist. The image is from the Observer-Reporter archives.
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West Middletown as it appeared about 1900 in a photo from the Observer-Reporter archives

WEST MIDDLETOWN – An escaped slave being pursued by his master in the mid-1800s stumbled into West Middletown footsore, naked, hungry, tired and scared.

The runaway was quickly taken to an Underground Railroad station at the home of a staunch abolitionist, Matthew McKeever, only to be followed there by his owner, led by a bloodhound.

Rather than turn over the escapee, Mc-Keever insisted on taking him before the local justice of the peace to determine whether he was a free black man. The courtroom was surrounded shortly thereafter by angry abolitionists holding pitchforks.

Another local abolitionist attending the proceeding, James McElroy, asked the master if he owned the dog, and he received a positive reply. McElroy then stated, “This bloodhound does not leave this town alive,” according to oral history records at the West Middletown historical society named in McKeever’s honor.

“In less than 10 minutes that dog was hanging to the limb of a tree and the master was on his way out of town, believing it wasn’t healthy for him to remain a minute longer than necessary,” McElroy’s son, James, stated in the 1910 oral history project.

This small town that cropped up along a 19th century wagon trail is situated halfway between Washington and Wellsburg, W.Va., and was once bustling with traveling merchants. During the early 1800s, the town had attracted many residents who strongly opposed slavery at a time when the neighboring state to the west was Virginia, part of the antebellum South.

Its remote location along present-day Route 844 provided a great place to hide runaway slaves, and the town’s proximity to Virginia often made it the first stop in the North for escaped slaves running away through what is now the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia.

The runaway slaves were kept in West Middletown until their “owner’s watch ended,” and then slipped to the care of a free barber in Washington, Samuel W. Dorsey, who had well-established connections to get them into Canada, according to a Dec. 17, 1955, article about local Underground Railroad stations in The Observer.

McKeever was the lead conductor in his hometown, and he took his instructions from the infamous John Brown, who was executed in 1859 after leading a brief raid on the federal armory and arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Va. Brown had fallen under the delusion that his raid would inspire scores of slaves to revolt and join his war against slavery.

The younger McElroy discusses how Brown, in 1842, set up a wool-buying headquarters in the house of McElroy’s father, as well as at the McKeever home, where Brown also would lead talks focusing on his bitter “denunciation of slavery and the apologizers of it.”

At one such meeting, McElroy’s father declared slavery was becoming stronger and more defiant, “and that in the providence of God it would go down in blood before the end came.”

“How truthful that prophecy!” McElroy said.

The younger McElroy said he was eyewitness to the events and, at the age of 15, even shuttled slaves himself in a wagon to Paris under cover of darkness, following instructions from his father.

McKeever kept his involvement in the Underground Railroad a tight secret, one he didn’t share with most members of his immediate family of 18 to 20, not even his wife.

Participating in the Underground Railroad was risky business in parts of Washington County, including its county seat, because it was heavily populated with pro-slavery residents, said Clay Kilgore, executive director of Washington County Historical Society.

“The McKeever family kind of leads the way in West Middletown,” Kilgore said. “It’s fairly safe going there.”

In 1842, McKeever’s secret was shattered when the city of Wheeling, then part of Virginia, offered a $500 reward for his capture, dead or alive, for helping slaves escape to Canada, according to another oral history collected from Sarah A. Armstrong.

“Few had known about this work until this notice was posted,” Armstrong said.

McKeever was assisted with the Underground Railroad by local abolitionists and John Jordan, a free black man. It was Jordan’s job to hide the escaped slaves in McKeever’s sheep loft and feed them from a nearby springhouse for a month before they were moved to Washington.

McKeever’s “hired girl” had grown suspicious, though, and told his wife someone kept stealing bread and other food. His children also would ask him why they often found their clothes and shoes missing from their bedrooms in the mornings and heard noises through the night, he wrote in an 1880 letter to a friend.

Eventually, McKeever told his children the sounds were the “midnight train or flyer” for Pittsburgh, Butler or other northern towns.

“Of course the profits were small, and the passengers had to be clothed and fed and their traveling expenses paid,” Armstrong stated, adding McKeever would eventually confess to his neighbors that he had been a conductor on the freedom route for 40 years, and that the largest number of escapees he had shipped at one time was eight.

McKeever was among the second generation of abolitionists in his hometown.

His father, William, who settled there in the 1790s, once acted out so angrily against slavery that the events of that day were still remembered there a century later.

About 1810, a group of slaves handcuffed in pairs to a heavy chain at intervals of six feet made its way through the town.

The chain gang, known as a coffle, had been purchased in Maryland to furnish labor at farms in Virginia, resident Rebecca C. Jones related in her 1910 oral history.

“As the poor souls wended their weary way up the street they passed the door of William McKeever. The sight made the Scotch-Irish blood in his veins boil. He rushed out and poured forth his righteous indignation. Ordinarily a kindly man, but now he knew no bounds,” Jones said.

The conductor was on horseback, whip in hand, as William McKeever called down all of the terrors of the hereafter on him.

“In hell they’ll (roast) thee like a herring,” Jones quoted him as saying in the story passed down to her by her mother.

The conductor was discrete, even though he had to listen to the denunciations for a mile beyond town, when William McKeever “exhausted his vocabulary” and came home “quite the hero,” Jones stated.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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