Monday, January 23, 2017

Emmanuel Episcopal Church

Photo from website of Emmanuel Parish of the Episcopal Church

The Cumberland hilltop where Emmanuel Church now stands was originally the site of a trading post for the Ohio Company, who sold land to would be settlers and supported America’s westward expansion by selling them needed goods and offered a place to trade the things they produced.  It was also the cultural and social center of the community.  On Christmas Day in either 1778, or more likely 1749, the first Christian worship service in this region took place. It was led by Christopher Gist, known as a devout Anglican, who ran the trading post and is likely the origin of the current Church’s name, Emmanuel (meaning God is with us).

George Washington.
The center portrait by John Hancock Snubs courtesy of the New England Historical
Society is the familiar look we associate with George Washington,but the flanking
ones by James Peale that hang at Mt. Vernon may be more similar to how he would
have looked during his time in Cumberland

In 1754, a young George Washington, then employed as a surveyor for the Ohio Company and a Colonel in the Virginia Militia, brought troops to push the French out of territories claimed by the British Colonies. He failed.  And his surrender at Fort Necessity (about 50 miles away) was the impetus for the French and Indian War. In 1755 the British Army occupied the land and erected Fort Cumberland, named after the British Minister of War, to serve as logistical headquarters for the forces under General Edward Braddock.  At the time it was the largest military installation in North America.  Braddock’s expedition ended as a complete disaster with his defeat in the Battle of Monongahela but troops continued to be garrisoned at the fort under Colonel Washington’s leadership for the remainder of the war. Local settlers and soldiers met together at the Fort to hold church services, some of which were led by Colonel Washington when a Chaplain was not present.  It was last used as a military installation in October 1794 when President George Washington brought troops to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion.

Tunnel Below Emmanuel, Photo from website of
Emmanuel Parish of the Episcopal Church
One of the features of Fort Cumberland was a system of earthworks known today as The Tunnels.  The Tunnels, and a cabin that’s been moved to a city park, are all that visibly remains of the Fort. Originally these tunnels served as storage for perishable foods and gun powder and played a part in the Forts defense system.  Because the Fort was made of wood, it was highly vulnerable to attack and required out defenses ¼ mile to the Potomac and Will’s Creek that were accessed by trenches extending from below the Fort’s walls. 100 years later, the same tunnels and trenches became the way that escaping slaves got up under the Church to the safety of the Underground Railroad station here.

In the early 1850’s a young escaping slave named Samuel Denson arrived from Mississippi and decided to remain, pretending to be a freedman, and work for the freedom of others rather than continuing on his own journey to freedom.  He conspired with the Reverend David Hillhouse Buel, Rector of Emmanuel Parish, who had also worked with other Underground Railroad sites in Sykeville and Westminster before coming to Emmanuel in 1847. Buel gave Denson the job of Sexton which included keeping the Church and Rectory looked after, keeping the furnace going, ringing the Church bell and doing custodial work at the Allegany Academy (which now houses the Public Library).  In that capacity it was a natural part of Denson’s job to traverse the tunnels regularly.  It was the perfect cover for his role with the Underground Railroad!

Part of the old Fort’s defense works ran from the east end of the Church down the hill to Will’s Creek.  In those days this was an area where rail lines came together at the Terminus of the C&O Canal.  It was called “Shanty Town” because of the proliferation of saloons, brothels and shacks where canal workers and lowlifes lived… a natural hiding place for someone on the run.  Escaping slaves were instructed  to hide out there while waiting for the next moved to be signaled – Samuel Denson ringing the church bell in a special coded way - and then bringing them to safety under the Church where could rest, eat and get other aid for a day from Rev. Buel and fellow abolitionists.  Then they followed a tunnel under the Rectory and out the cellar door into a [then] unpopulated part of town and be transported over the Mason Dixon line 4 miles away.  For many, the tunnels below Emmanuel Church were the last Underground Railroad stop in slave territory.

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