The ‘Underground Railroad' ran through here

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:46

    WEST MILFORD-Slavery here and throughout the northern states was far more common in the 19th Century than many people today realize. As the debate about slavery raged through the country and the threat of civil war hung heavy in the air, a West Milford business owner, Peter LaRoe, demonstrated the kind of transition in attitude and belief the anti-slavery movement sought for the young nation. LaRoe acquired a slave in the early 1840's. The slave was to work in LaRoe's grist mill in the town's Stowaway Park area, now part of the Pinecliff Lake area. According to local historian Jim Van Hooker, it's not known exactly how long the slave worked at the grist mill, but in 1855 LaRoe freed the slave and bestowed the house adjacent to the mill to the man. Whether this was as an act of contrition or not is unknown. Van Hooker said "The house was known as the slave house for years long after the property had exchanged hands." The slave also played a significant part in the town's Presbyterian Church history. "It's thought the slave also worked at the church and in 1842 was responsible for accidentally burning the church down by placing hot ashes in a wooden box and leaving them in the basement," said Van Hooker. "The Earth Shook and the Sky was Red" gives an 1850 census which shows the town had a total of 2,592 residents alongside 32 freed slaves. The book by Inas Otten and Eleanor Weskerna, written to celebrate the bicentennial history of West Milford, shows there were seven male and 16 female slaves still in bondage in Passaic County. While it wouldn't be until 1865 before slavery was abolished by ratification of the 13th Amendment, New Jersey and its northern region played a significant role in the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was the invisible and secret network of people and places that provided a trackless route for escaping slaves from the southern states hoping to reach a promised land of freedom in the north. The number of slaves who used the railroad is the subject of much debate, however most recent findings show the figure to be 30,000 to 40,000. The majority of these fugitives remained in the southern states escaping instead to the urban centers in the hope of passing themselves off as freed slaves. The significance of the underground railroad was in its expression of resistance by slaves who had been depicted by slaveholders as simple, childlike, and with no desire for freedom. It also demonstrated that many whites throughout northern and southern states believed freedom wasn't mandated by the color of a person's skin. In 1804 New Jersey passed the Gradual Abolition of Slavery statute which increased the activity in and around the state, particularly for slaves fleeing across the Delaware River. Of the networks which crossed New Jersey, the most commonly used began in Camden, led to Bordentown, then on to Princeton and New Brunswick before ending in Jersey City or New York City. There were other routes, however, that ran further north. Boonton played a significant role and inevitably led to slaves fleeing through Newfoundland, West Milford and Vernon north to Albany, N.Y., and Canada which had abolished slavery in 1833. While there are no known resting areas in West Milford for slaves fleeing north the apparent mood in the town at the time towards slavery suggests it would have been sympathetic to slaves seeking food, water and shelter. Of course, since the guiding premise of slave escape routes was secrecy, the underground railroad, often consisting of small hidden cubbyholes in private homes, may indeed be among this town's best kept secrets.