Pittsburgh's Underground Railroad History Sheds Light On City's 'Militant Abolitionist Community'

Jun 6, 2019

Atop Mount Washington, in the sprawling Chatham Village community, is a large brick home with large windows and spacious balconies. Chatham Village resident, architect and amateur historian David Vater said it used to be known as the Bigham House, and was the residence of abolishionist lawyer Thomas Bigham. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The front door of Chatham Hall, formerly known as the Bigham House. It was the home of abolitionist lawyer Thomas Bigham and a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Credit Kathleen J. Davis / 90.5 WESA

"This building sat all by itself out in this large open woods ... on the top of the hill," Vater said. "[That] made it sort of an ideal place to seclude the slaves, and they could see anyone approaching the house for miles around."

Legendary lore has developed around the Underground Railroad. While not actually a train route underground, it was a way for slaves to escape servitude, often by heading to Canada.

WESA listener Cynthia Bell of Highland Park asked a Good Question about this period in history.

"I was wondering what the Underground Railroad stops were in Pittsburgh," Bell asked.

There are five confirmed spots within Pittsburgh city limits, said Samuel Black, director of African American programs at the Heinz History Center. He helped create the exhibit "From Slavery to Freedom," which includes information about the people and places that were in helping enslaved people find freedom during the middle of the 19th century.

The "From Slavery to Freedom" exhibit at the Heinz History Center.
Credit Kathleen J. Davis / 90.5 WESA

"Pittsburgh had a rather militant abolitionist community," Black said. "You had what they call vigilance committees, people who [were] almost like members of a volunteer fire department."

If word got out that a freedom seeker was being apprehended, Black said the vigilance committee would spring into action. That could mean forming a mob around that person to create confusion so they could escape to a safe house.

Some of these safe houses were downtown, including the home of abolitionist Martin Delany and the barbershop and bathhouse of John Vashon.

"So people were able to get clean clothes," Black said. "He would change their appearance, whether they need a haircut, shave, whatever they needed cosmetically so that they would not be detected." 

The Monongahela House Hotel, once on the corner of Boulevard of the Allies and Smithfield Street was a stop, as was Avery College, on the corner of Avery and Nash streets on the North Side.

David Vater said people on the Underground Railroad journey knew Mount Washington's Bigham House was safe if they saw a quilt or lantern out on the balcony.

On the top floor of the house, the ceilings are shorter because there's an extra floor accessible only through an access door on the ceiling. That's where the Bigham familiy nurse Lucinda Bryant lived. Bryant was a black woman who had come from the South, and some suspect she herself had escaped slavery.

"It's thought that perhaps the rooms beside her bedroom would have been where some of the slaves would have stayed overnight," Vater said. 

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.

There are many other places in Pittsburgh that are rumored to have been Underground Railroad stops. Samuel Black said the evidence only confirms the existence of these five stops. But, he said there were hundreds of people in the area who were sympathetic to the antislavery movement.

"They may have used their home as a place of refuge one time in a lifetime," Black said. "Even if you find evidence that someone was harboring fugitives in their home, it doesn't mean their home was a stop on the network."