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The strategic central location of Williamsport, PA made the city and its surrounding towns one of the most important stops for escaped slaves in their journey to freedom. From 1840 to 1861 Daniel Hughes was one of the area’s most prominent and famous conductors. Standing somewhere between 6 feet 7 inches and 6 feet 10 inches, Hughes, his wife, and 16 children risked their lives hiding slaves on their property before sending them to their next station in Trout Run, PA. His job as a lumber raftsmen gave him the ability to regularly smuggle slaves back up the Susquehanna River from Havre de Grace, Maryland. From there, escaped slaves were hid in the wooded area around the Hughes homestead, often in a series of caves. The legacy of Daniel Hughes and his stories have been kept alive and documented by his great-granddaughter, Mamie Sweeting Diggs.

Daniel Hughes, a mixed race man that was part African-American and part Mohawk

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Daniel Hughes house that he moved into in 1828. Hughes moved from Oswego, New York and lived in the house with his wife Ann Rotch who was a free African-American woman living in Williamsport.

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Barge on the Williamsport Canal owned by Daniel Hughes where he worked with Abraham and Derek Updegraff. Hughes hid runaway slaves on these boats during trips back from Havre De Grace, Maryland.

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Map of Williamsport from 1861 that shows where Daniel Hughes lived. "D Hughes" can be seen on the map to the North of the city where the main road that splits off to the right.

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Cave in the woods behind Freedom Road used to hide slaves

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The 1850s and 1860s were when The Underground Railroad was at its height in a divided America. At the time, although slavery was already abolished in the north, The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 made it illegal to assist runaway slaves. Furthermore, the Act of 1850 allowed slave catchers to operate north of the Mason-Dixon Line with no legal restrictions on searching for and capturing escaped slaves. This means that Hughes and his family risked prison time, fines, physical harm, and even death from peers that still supported slavery. Due to the need to keep this operation secret, little evidence remains of the underground railroad efforts.

Daniel Hughes’s house that he and his family lived in during the 19th century has since been destroyed by a fire. The homestead was located just north of Williamsport and provided the perfect safe haven from patrolling slave catchers. The surrounding area was heavily wooded and covered in vines with multiple caves concealed by the dense brush. In addition, slaves were also hidden inside the house, where a loose panel in the kitchen closet concealed a secret hiding place. The Hughes’s eventually donated part of their land for a cemetery for African Americans. Daniel Hughes is currently buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery on Freedom Road along with runaway slaves who did not make it and nine African American civil war veterans.

Daniel Hughes great granddaughter, Mamie Sweeting Diggs claims that the Hughes family got 1,000 runaway slaves through Williamsport without losing a single one. Although, that does not mean slave catchers did not regularly visit the house in search of slaves. To deter these bounty hunters, Hughes and his sons would stretch horsehair across the trails to knock slave catchers off their horses and slow down their pursuit. Furthermore, the Hughes family did not work alone, church folk in the city who were mostly Quakers also helped by providing food and supplies for the runaways. In addition, two German immigrants, Abraham and Derek Updegraff worked closely with Daniel taking slaves up the canal and safely transporting them to the Hughes homestead.

           The Updegraff’s used a series of tunnels near the edge of the canal to discreetly transport slaves to the Thomas Lightfoot Inn, the Updegraff family farm. They would hide the slaves in barns on the property, providing food and rest to the runaways before continuing their long journey to freedom. From there, Abraham and Derek would then load the escaped slaves into wagons and transport them to Daniel Hughes property on Freedom Road. Once they arrived they would be hidden in a series of caves in the forrest surrounding the house. Daniel and his sons used stones to make furniture for the caves that included chairs, tables, and straw filled pillows and beds. Then, operating on moonless nights, Hughes would help the escaped slaves along to the next station in Trout Run, PA where they would continue to travel through the Allegheny mountains to Elmira, New York and eventually Canada where they no longer could be arrested and returned to bondage.

Due to the secretive nature of The Underground Railroad, these caves are some of the only evidence that still remains today. They represent the efforts made by the most prominent conductor of The Underground Railroad in Williamsport, PA. The caves demonstrate and provide further context to the unique ways that The Underground Railroad operated in America. Mamie Sweeting Diggs also recognized how important it was to keep the history of Daniel Hughes alive which is why she dedicated her life to passing down the stories of her ancestors. The Freedom Road Caves help further this mission and represent a small piece of what life was like for African-Americans during the 19th century before slavery was abolished.

Walling, Henry Francis, S. D Tilden, and H.F. Walling'S Map Establishment. Topographical map  of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania: from actual surveys. New York: S.D. Tilden, 1861. Map.

Aucken, Robin Van. Hunsinger, Louis E. Williamsport: Boomtown on the Susquehanna. Charleston, South Carolina. Arcadia, 2003.

Estomin, Lynn. Williamsport/Trout Run Sites | The Underground Railroad in Lycoming County, PA, Freedom Bound. Accessed March 6 2022.

Hunsinger Jr. , Lou. Daniel Hughes: Giant of Freedom Road, Hands on Heritage. October 27th 2017. Accessed March 6th 2022.

Maroney, Mark. City was key point along Underground Railroad, Williamsport Sun-Gazette. February 13th 2017. Accessed March 6th 2022.

Walling, Henry Francis, S. D Tilden, and H.F. Walling'S Map Establishment. Topographical map of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania: from actual surveys. New York: S.D. Tilden, 1861. Map.

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