Bob Greene and I were sitting in the parlor of his old house in Sebago one evening, sipping some brown liquor, when he asked me "Did you know that this place used to be a tavern? We're sitting in what was the tap room for the tavern."
"No," I said, always ready for a good yarn. "Tell me more."
The Sebago House
"Jeremiah Decker built this house for Robert McDonald in 1848. It was the first tavern in town and was known as the Sebago House. Messrs Rowe and Wight operated it as a tavern from 1848 until 1869," Bob said.
"I thought that Maine voted in the nation's first prohibition law in 1851," I asked. "Must have been hard to run a tavern in a dry state."
"Well they also took in boarders and had a big livery stable in the barn, and apparently they did all right. They were in a good location, just one day's travel from Portland by horse or wagon. This was a handy spot to stop for travelers who were heading to Bridgton and points north around the west side of the lake."
"And so the road junction out front, Mc's Corner, is named after McDonald?"
"Yup," Bob said. Taking another sip of his scotch he went on, "And did you know that there is a secret room right under our feet? Family stories have that it was used to hide escaping slaves and the tavern was one of the stations on the Underground Railroad in Maine."
By now, Bob really had my interest. I told him that we had met his mother Leona before she had died and she was convinced that this used to be part of the Underground Railroad. "Can you show me this secret room?" I asked.
Bob led me down the steep, narrow stairs to his cellar and asked me if I noticed anything unusual. I looked around, and saw walls of split granite, with some brickwork here and there. "Looks like your typical Maine cellar to me," I said.
"That's right," he said, "but if you were to measure it off you would find that the cellar is smaller than the house above it, and in this corner part of the cellar is walled off. When we were putting some duct work in we had to take down part of the wall and discovered a small room behind this wall we're standing next to." He took me around to see where the wall had been breached, and I was able to peer into the void.
"It is accessible only from the tap room upstairs, where we were sitting," Bob continued.
Bob went on to explain that travelers and wagons would have come and went at the tavern every day at all hours of the day and night. It would be very easy for a wagon with an escaped slave to arrive in the middle of the night and not arouse any suspicions. The slave could safely be hidden in the secret room, and then moved along to the next station when the coast was clear.
Bob didn't have any "hard" evidence, like a journal or writing on the wall. However, I found that there is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence to support the idea that the Sebago House could have been at one time a station on the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad in Maine
Although one of the earliest recorded escapes of slaves took place in 1786 when Philadelphia Quakers assisted refugees from Virginia to freedom, the peak years of what we now refer to as the Underground Railroad were from about 1830 until 1865. In the years leading up to the Civil War controversy over slavery tore the country apart. As antislavery sentiment deepened, underground activity grew in the 1840's, with the northern states viewed as a safe haven for escaped southern slaves. That all changed when, as part of the Compromise of 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law that permitted the recapture and extradition of escaped slaves with the assistance of federal marshals. State officials as well as private citizens had to assist in their capture. With these restrictions, northern states were no longer considered safe havens for runaways, and runaways were forced to flee to Canada and other locations out of the country.
The Underground Railroad extended throughout 14 northern states from Maine to Nebraska, but was most active in New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and New York. There was no railroad, and it wasn't underground, but the slaves enroute to freedom were called "freight", stopping places were called "stations", and those who helped the slaves along the way were "conductors." In Maine, slaves often came to Portland and then made their way to Canada by sea, rail, or overland by way of Sebago Lake.
The Portland Branch of the NAACP chronicles the Underground Railroad and mentions a "northwest trek that rounded Sebago Lake, passed through Bridgton and continued through New Hampshire and into Vermont. Safe-houses where the fugitives could sleep or rest were found in various communities…" (firstname.lastname@example.org). One historian concluded that stations were normally found about 10 to 30 miles apart, or the distance a healthy man could travel on foot or a wagon carrying several slaves could cover at night.
I spoke with Vaugn Born and Susan Norton at the Westbrook Historical Society about a station in Westbrook at Brackett's Store. Vaugn showed me a copy of Fabious Ray's history of Westbrook in which he chronicled that refugee slaves had been hidden on the fourth floor of the store in the 1830's. They were moved from there to other stations on the way to Canada. (Ray, Fabius M., Story of Westbrook, 1912) She also had heard stories of other stations located in the area.
The Sebago House claim as an Underground Railroad station is supported by an account of an escaped slave in Sebago. Mrs. Asenath Wentworth was 93 years old when she was interviewed by the Telegram in about 1910. A faded newspaper clipping at the Sebago Historical Society tells how she was a young girl at the Dyke Farm in Sebago when a crippled escaped slave came to their door. Her farther said "Now, now, don't be afraid. This is some poor slave who is trying to make his way to Canada." Her father took the man in, fed him, and helped him on his way north. If there was one, then perhaps there were others as well. Or, perhaps this escapee was looking for refuge at Sebago House and lost his way.
The entire Underground Railroad operation was apparently conducted with great secrecy. For example, the wife of Sewall Brackett was not brought into the secret that her husband ran a station at their store in Westbrook. Later, after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, the secrecy probably increased. Historians have found that hard evidence about stations and conductors is very difficult to uncover, so it is not unusual that none has been found about the Sebago House - yet.
We may never know for certain if escaped slaves were ever hidden at the Sebago House and helped along their way to freedom. However, the circumstantial evidence all points to the fact that it could well have happened.
I had a few calls offering additional information in response to my article on the Underground Railroad in Sebago that was published in the Press Herald on March 10, 2005, as "Sebago home may have been Underground station".
Lucretia Douglas from Sebago called and made a couple of corrections. She said that Jeremiah Decker built the Sebago House for John McDonald in 1848 (I had Jeremy Decker for Robert McDonald). The Sebago House was operated as a tavern and inn, and had a dance hall upstairs with a raised platform where the fiddler used to stand, as well as a bar. Douglas also remembered that there was a mysterious locked room in the cellar.
Vaun Born sent me some information from the Westbrook Historical Society, including an excerpt from a 1976 interview with Miss Marion Dana who talked about her grandfather, Sewall Brackett, hiding escaped slaves in his store. She said "…My grandfather, Sewall Brackett, had a connection with the underground slave traffic during the Civil War, and he helped many slaves escape to Canada. He kept them when they came by railroad to Westbrook. He kept them in the upper story of his store on Main St. He used to take food form the house, and my grandmother would say, "Sewall, what happened to all my food." "Sewall, what happened to those doughnuts," or different things, and he never would tell her because he didn't want anyone to know that he had the Underground Railroad and he was helping the slaves get away from the south and get into Canada…"
Born also sent me information that the old Presumpscot Hotel on Main Street in Westbrook was a station on the Underground Railroad as well. And Suzan Norton, secretary of Westbrook Historical Society mentioned that an aunt of hers told here about a house located on Allen Ave in Portland that was supposedly one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. Finally, Harriet Price of Portland contacted me and said that there were routes up both sides of Sebago Lake that were used by escaping slaves, and that were probably one to three stations in the Sebago area on the Underground Railroad. She is writing a book on the Underground Railroad in Maine and has done extensive research on the topic.
Last updated June 21, 2005
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree
This article was edited and published in the Portland Press Herald on March 10, 2005 under the title "Sebago home may have been Underground Station". Errata published as "Readers offer underground railroad details" on March 24, 2005.