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.

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Levi Coffin House

Levi Coffin House front entrance also showing side entrance

On my journey to learn more about the Underground Railroad in western Pennsylvania, I stopped at the Coffin House in Fountain City, Indiana in October. It is a pretty fascinating museum, but only opened certain times in the spring to fall months. I was in luck that a tour was being conducted for Indiana University – East (near Indianapolis). I caught the tail end of the tour when they were headed to the barn, but was then given a private tour by Saundra Jackson.

One way the fugitive slaves were directed/transported to the Coffin house was from the Rankin home in Ripley, Ohio.

Although the Coffin House is  National Landmark, it is maintained and operated by the Levi Coffin House Association. Access the Levi Coffin House website here.

Below is a slide show from inside the house as well as the barn.

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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.)

Rating system of sites and individuals described

While researching the Underground Railroad activity in the western Pennsylvania area, I was fortunate to meet Pat Trimble. He was a past president of the Fayette County (PA) Genealogical Society and part time historian with an interest in the area’s involvement and some of the key players with the Underground Railroad.

L-R: Prof. Tom Mainwaring, Pat Trimble

Pat has been instrumental in guiding my thesis progress and I visited him in June 2010 to see firsthand the areas we discussed this spring. Our first stop was to meet history professor Thomas Mainwaring at the Washington Jefferson College in Washington, PA. I had spoken briefly with Professor Mainwaring, before my visit so it was nice putting a face to the voice.

In Professor Mainwaring’s office, I explained the visual thesis project I hoped to present and the hypothesis I was working on, that the Latta Stone House was part of the Underground Railroad and that key community leaders and preachers were involved with the Underground Railroad. Professor Mainwaring is very knowledgeable about this topic, as he had done considerable research of Washington County’s (PA) involvement with the Underground Railroad. He gently told me that the area I was looking at was too small to find much for a thesis and suggested I expand the area to the Monongahela Valley.

Professor Mainwaring gave me part of the document he wrote when researching the area where the Latta Stone House is located. His research of sites ranged “from those that are extremely well documented to those that are certainly bogus.” He was more concerned about “developing biographical portraits of individuals about whom very little or nothing is known.” I had the same thoughts in wanting to find out about individuals tied to the Latta Stone House that could have helped with the Underground Railroad.

Tom Mainwaring

In Tom Mainwaring's office

Although his rating system, he readily admits, is not an exact science, he tries to make distinctions between “convincing proof” – a five North Star rating and “no evidence” or a zero North Star rating. He used “North Star” after the name of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper.

His rating system¹ is as follows:

5 North Stars: Convincing proof from several independent sources that the site was an Underground Railroad station. Written contemporary evidence and primary sources are available.
4 North Stars: Site was almost certainly a stop, but lack primary sources for confirmation or is only mentioned in one source.
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.
2 North Stars: The site may have been a stop, but few or no details are available. Evidence is fragmentary or incomplete, and may come from only one source.
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.
0 North Stars: No evidence or a spurious site. Evidence contradicts claims made for the site.

This evaluation system gets at the heart of what historians use as fact that can be proven. Nevertheless, how can something that operated clandestinely, where participants were knowingly breaking the law, be held to the same scrutiny history demands? Records were not kept in most cases for fear they would be used as evidence to prosecute individuals or disclose others involved in this type of activity. Do we discount or dismiss individuals, events and or sites because they do not measure against the standard yard stick used? Do we believe everything from folklore? How DO we evaluate events like this?

¹Thomas Mainwaring, “Abandoned Tracks, The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania.” unpublished document, Washington Jefferson College. Washington, PA, 2010.

Published in: on October 24, 2010 at 4:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Not all of Pennsylvania’s views on fugitive slaves were the same

In February (2010) I had an interesting discussion with Janet from the Washington County Historical Society in Pennsylvania (located in the LeMoyne House) regarding the attitudes of the people in the area during the time of the Underground Railroad. It seems that many were pro-Virginia and not as adamant about taking a stand regarding abolishing slavery as the rest of the state.

When I discussed many of the things happening in Philadelphia, e.g. the Vigilance Committee as discussed in William Still’s book The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts, Janet pointed out that abolitionists were considered agitators disturbing the “normal” way of life. Many of the locals were not pro-slavery, but had a strong dislike for those that were organizing meetings to help further the fugitive slaves’ route to freedom.

She told me that although the locals didn’t necessarily like what the abolitionists were saying, they felt that the abolitionists had the right to their freedom of speech. Janet told me the story of a minister who came to talk (at a local meeting house) about the plight of the fugitive slaves and how to help them. He was met with people who did not like the topic and chased him to do him bodily harm.

The minister narrowly escaped only to be invited back again the next month by Dr. LeMoyne with the meeting being held at the LeMoyne House garden. People stood ready with bats (and the children on the third floor with bee hives) to protect the minister’s right to free speech should anyone try to disrupt the meeting.

We talked about examples of how this could be related in today’s world. I thought of the Civil Right’s movement in the 60s but she countered with drug use of neighbors. “Albeit it’s illegal,” she stated, “you might know of neighbors that smoke marijuana, but you don’t call the police on them…as long as it doesn’t affect your own life.”

From that I took away that although many of the local people were NOT pro-slavery, they didn’t like some of their neighbors advocating abolition. Other neighbors knew that fugitive slaves were being harbored in area homes, but did not report those illegal activities.

Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 9:25 pm  Comments (1)