New connection, new insights to California, PA UGRR site

California has been the focus of a lot of folklore much of it never confirmed~ Ron Paglia

In January I received on email from a gentleman, Ron Paglia, who was researching an individual from my family, namely my great-aunt Dee Dee (Mary Margaret Chester) and her connection to the Stone House Players.

Miss Chester was in to the dramatics and created a group called the Stone House Players. Mr. Paglia was researching an individual (Sally Cairns) who was part of the group. He was made aware of my connection and me to Miss Chester through the California Area Historical Society. (I had visited there several times.) They gave him my email address as well as my blog/research address on the Underground Railroad in the area.

After conversing via email, we spoke on January 20th. I was able to give him several reference points regarding his research, but since I was only 10 years old when Dee Dee died, I suggested he speak with my older sister, Diane. She lived at the Latta Stone house with our great-aunt and even attended elementary school for a few years in Roscoe, PA.

Shutterly House - Front and side

After we spoke, Mr. Paglia sent me his recollections on the Shutterly house at 800 Park Street in California, PA and its connection to the Underground Railroad. His recollections are as follows:

I believe you said you talked to a woman there during your visit in this area in 2009. James “Moe” Giovanardi lived there and he and I graduated from California Community High School in 1957. His sister, Janet Giovanardi, graduated in 1955. I’m not sure of whatever happened to Moe, although I do recall that the folks who organized our traditional class reunions lost track of him over the years. I did find references to a Joseph and Christina Giovanardi owning the home and living there in the 1970s and 1980s, but I did not know them.

As I mentioned on the home, I was in the home on several occasions, because Moe and I were friends. And I recall going into the basement of the home and seeing a section boarded up. The story was that the opening behind the boards led to a tunnel that was part of the Underground Railroad and led to a spot near the Monongahela River in West Brownsville (Washington County), just across the river from Brownsville (Fayette County). The story making the rounds in those years also alluded to the tunnel passing under a Boy Scout campsite just outside of California on property that now houses the Center In The Woods senior center and The Oaks independent housing complex just off Route 88 between California and Blainesburg.

As Boy Scouts, we often held meetings and outings there and even camped overnight at times. There were stories about “ghosts … in the ground below us” as we sat around a campfire at night. The legend also indicated that the slaves who used the tunnel “wound up in Brownsville” and made their way to other homes that were part of the Underground Railroad there. One of those homes supposedly was located just off-Broadway (street or avenue), which led to Route 40. I do recall that Moe Giovanardi had relatives who lived there (perhaps a cousin) and that we went there a few times. Moe was one of the few guys in California who had a car and he often asked me if I wanted to go for a ride.

Despite all of the stories surrounding the Giovanardi home being part of the Underground Railroad, I have never seen any documentation of that, nor have I ever talked to anyone in California who could verify it.

Other buildings in California as you no doubt know also were linked to the Underground Railroad, but like other towns in the Mon Valley, California has been the focus of a lot of folklore much of it never confirmed, etc. Similar stories have evolved in Fayette City and Monongahela (Bethel AME Church).

Just like the Latta Stone House being connected to the Underground Railroad, many folklore just don’t pan out to be the truth. However, who are we, in the 21st century to say that perhaps the occupants of these homes didn’t direct, loan horses, or give water and or food to a fugitive slave or two?

Ron Paglia has over 54 years experience in the newspaper, public relations and freelance professions.


Rankin House – Ripley, OH

During the Christmas holiday, my husband and I drove to Cincinnati, OH to visit family. Since I was unable to visit the Rankin House during my last trip in October 2010, I decided to trek the hour drive to Ripley, OH and visit the home on Liberty Hill.

Rankin House

From my readings, I had been able to imagine the house, on the Ohio River and the Kentucky bank. I saw sketches of the house and visited websites¹ and links to the Rankin house. What I was not prepared for was 1) how small the house actually is and, 2) how far away the house is from the Ohio River. (At least 100 wooden steps once you were past the path from the river.) Located on Liberty Hill, the house sheltered 2000 fugitive slaves making their way to freedom in Canada and was “a beckoning symbol of freedom that could be seen for many miles along the river.”²

The river was much narrower then – approximately 150 yards compared to the over 600 yards (p.214) from the Kentucky bank to the Ripley, Ohio bank. This was due to dredging of the river in the late 1800s and early 1900s as well as the lock and dam system put in place for the boat commerce.

View from river (telephoto lens)

As a Presbyterian minister, Rankin’s sermons “reiterated three basic principles: that all men were created equal, that God had ‘made of one blood all nations of men,’ and that every man ought to either do his own work or pay the man who does it for him.” (p.192) Although he never personally helped advance the fugitive slaves as a conductor (p. 207) (his sons generally did that), he was instrumental in developing three pillars of the Underground Railroad. The first consisted of antislavery Presbyterian ministers, the second included politicized white abolitionists (Ohio Anti-Slavery Society) and African-Americans were the third pillar. (p198-199)

If there was a light emanating, it was safe to cross. The Rankin website indicates that the light was either a lantern or a candle. Standing at the Ohio River, looking up at the house, I could barely make out the door or windows, let alone see if a candle was burning. However, at night, it might be a different view. On the other hand, perhaps he, or one of his 13 children, was at a location closer to the river. The Rankin house sent the fugitive slaves and their conductors north and westward, and many passed through the Coffin house in Fountain City, Ind.

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¹ “Rankin House.” Ohio History Central, accessed January 3, 2011.

² Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005), 190.

Photo gallery link: Cole Furniture. (3 January 2011).

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 5:54 pm  Comments (4)  

UGRR site in Roscoe, PA

The Monongahela Valley Area
Underground Railroad sites

Latta Stone House -1 Star*

The Latta Stone House circa 1900

Located on Mt. Tabor Road, in a city originally called Lucyville, the Latta Stone House is what started me on this journey.  The Stockdale family built this house in 1805. Legend had it that Allen Stockdale built it, but my genealogical research has Allen born in 1802.¹ I am not sure which Stockdale built it, but I have documents proving my great great grandfather O.D Latta purchased the house and land in 1869. It stayed in our family until 1980, after my grandfather died and his estate settled.

Professor Mainwaring’s site analysis describes it as a poorly documented Underground Railroad site with the only reference in an article by Mary Herron in The Washington Observer,² October 29, 1937. Herron’s article describes what I heard as a child growing up and visiting my relatives.  My Aunt Dee Dee’s (Mary Margaret Chester) bedroom was upstairs in the southwest corner of the house. Her closet, the only bedroom with a full-length closet, contained a false ceiling that led the only way into the attic. As a child, my brother and sisters were told how this house was part of the Underground Railroad. We were then lifted up into the attic to see where the slaves hid. I remember how it was pitch black up there. A fugitive slave could hide in plain sight.

Latta Stone House in the winter circa 1960s

Who actually lived in the house during the 1850s? Were they were pro- or anti-slavery? Throughout my research I have been unable to determine who legally owned or lived in the house from 1830 – 1863.  I know Allen Stockdale died in 1845, but I’m not sure he lived there. This also brings up the notion that all of this could have been a myth.

But if it was a myth, why? Was it to make the house more saleable? Was it to elevate the social status of the occupants? All I have is family lore, no documented facts. But it wasn’t a hotel with a registry. Records were not kept on who passed through the area needing help. The only tie I can draw is that area Quakers helped fugitive slaves. Thomas Stockdale, Allen’s father, was a Quaker but was banished from the local meeting group shortly after his arrival to the area in the late 1700s.

Latta Stone House circa 1977 from Mt. Tabor Rd.

I also wonder why Professor Mainwaring gives the Latta Stone House only one star and the Shutterly House three stars. Could it be that the Latta Stone House is situated in an area where no other reported Underground Railroad activity was made? The Shutterly House was a few blocks from the Job Johnson Hotel, a documented site, so was it elevated in plausibility? I think the Latta Stone House as an Underground Railroad site is possible being so close (four blocks) to the Monongahela River, but couldn’t you say that about other houses in the area…?

*1 North Star: Probability of site being a stop is low. Evidence is very slim and not very good. Local oral traditions may be the only source.

¹Department of Commerce. Census of Population and Housing, 1810. (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1810.)

²Mary Herron, “Latta Stone House Is Most Perfect Virginia Type Mansion In The Area, ” (The Washington Observer, October 29, 1937.)

UGRR sites in California, PA

The Monongahela Valley Area
Underground Railroad sites

California, PA sites – 3 Stars*

My recent visit to the Washington County (PA) area was in October. I had my trusty guide, Pat Trimble driving me to various sites listed in Professor Thomas Mainwaring’s document as well as introducing me to other people in the area and across the river into Fayette County (PA).

The first site I’ll discuss is in California, PA also known to local residents as Little California. (Washington, PA is also known as Little Washington as not to confuse it with the nation’s capital.)

Job Johnson Hotel – 3 Stars*

This site is no longer standing. It was named for one of the founders of California, but was torn down in the 20th century for another building.  Built on the Corner of Wood and First streets, it was situated very close to the Monongahela River which enabled fugitive slaves to be hidden at the hotel and then taken to Washington, PA.

According to Crumrine, “ with S.S. Rothwell and a very few others on this side of the county, [Johnson] always stood ready to lend a helping hand to those of sable hue who, traveling via the ‘Underground Railway,’ sought freedom in Canada.”¹

Lewis Shutterly House -3 stars*

Shutterly House - Front and side

Located at 800 Park St in California, PA. Professor Mainwaring site analysis states there is not much documentation for this site. However, a caption of the house in the California, Pennsylvania states “that the house is believed to have been an Underground Station.” ²

Shutterly House - Wooden addition

The house is still standing and I was able to talk with the resident, Janet Giovanardi. She told me she had lived in this house since she was 12 years old. When I asked her her age, I wasn’t given an answer in years, just that she had lived there for many years.

Ms. Janet Giovanardi

If I had to guess, I would put Ms. Giavanardi in her late seventies or early eighties. Of course, she could be older. Ms. Giavanardi indicated that her parents as well as her grandparents had lived here. She stated that when she is gone, it will go to her son.

When asked about the history of the home and its ties to Underground Railroad activities, she didn’t remember “anything about that.” She was more concerned about telling me she had termites that needed to be exterminated.

Window on the wooden addition

I asked her about the addition (that was inhabitable) and she didn’t remember it not always being there. “My son keeps telling me to tear it down, maybe I should,” she lamented. If she was concerned about the expense of exterminating termites, I’m sure the expense of tearing an addition off the existing house would trouble her more.

As I traveled home, I wondered why Ms. Giovanardi never heard stories about the house’s activities in regards to the Underground Railroad. I think about the Latta Stone House reputation for having helped hide fugitive slaves. The house came into our family in 1869 but the stories were handed down to each generation. But here at the Shutterly house, the current resident is a descendant of the people that supposedly helped fugitive slaves when taking them to the Job Johnson Hotel was too dangerous.

My other thoughts ran to not discussing these types of clandestine activities with children living in the house for fear they might tell someone and the those activities would be exposed to the authorities. One of those children had to be Ms. Giovanardi parent, if the dates line up correctly. I wonder if I would be able to trace who lived in the house using US censuses and not knowing the individuals last names, only the address.

Back door of Shutterly House - A Doorway to Freedom?

I also wonder if Ms. Giovanardi’s grandparents would be the Shutterlys. The 1860 census³ indicates Lewis Shutterly was married, had 3 children and was a coal merchant. Mr. Shutterly died in 1869.

10/29/11 UPDATE: I have been unable to find a phone number for Ms. Giovanardi for a follow up conversation.

*3 North Stars:
Preponderance of evidence suggest that the site was a stop. Some details or stories exist about the site, but the evidence is second-hand.

¹Boyd Crumrine,  History of Washington County, Pennsylvania: with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men. (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts and Co., 1882. pg 629.)

²Thomas Mainwaring, “Abandoned Tracks, The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania.” unpublished document, (Washington Jefferson College, Washington, PA, 2010.)

³Department of Commerce. Census of Population and Housing, 1860. (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1860.)