Historian studies track of Underground Railroad

Published 10:53 pm Friday, February 4, 2011

Staff Writer

A possible Underground Railroad site in Plymouth, commonly referred to as the Armistead House, will receive a visit from a notable historian Thursday to determine whether the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Carl Westmoreland, senior historian with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, wants to determine if the house was used to hide runaway slaves as they traveled northward to find freedom.
After inspecting the house and studying its history, Westmoreland is expected to make an announcement concerning his findings at 6 p.m. at the Roanoke River Maritime Museum on Water Street in Plymouth.
According to Willie Drye, a representative of Plymouth’s Small Town Main Street Committee, the house is owned by a family in Alabama. The family is happy Drye is trying to find out more about the house.
Drye, an author and writer for National Geographic’s news website, said if the house is determined to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, it will be of great historical significance, eventually becoming an Underground Railroad museum.
Drye said the Rev. Hank Burdick, with Grace Episcopal Church in Plymouth, is a member of the Small Town Main Street Committee and has played a key role in the effort to bring Westmoreland to Plymouth.
“The house has become quite dilapidated and is badly in need of some sort of stabilization,” Drye said. “That’s one of the first tasks we hope to accomplish.”
Drye said the house’s location on West Main Street in downtown Plymouth would benefit the downtown community because patrons of downtown businesses may who tour the home during shopping trips downtown.
“The house was built in 1814 and was added onto many times over the years,” he said. “It’s currently condemned and is not open to the public.”
Drye said there was a trapdoor located under the fireplace, which led to a place where slaves could hide until appropriate times to leave on their Underground Railroad journeys.
“They would stay in there until they could make their way to the ships at night and make their way to Canada for freedom,” he said. “Plymouth was a very busy port back then. In fact, it was the busiest in the state at those times.”
Drye has talked with several people in Plymouth who know about the house’s history and others who have been in the house.
“They said there was an underground tunnel going from this house to another house,” Drye said. “It led them out in the dark of night, from the tunnel to the boats.”
Drye said the tunnel has since collapsed. However, he said, one may see a slightly sunken area where the tunnel was located.
Because the house is condemned, the Plymouth Small Town Main Street Committee has been looking for funds to stabilize the house and, eventually, turn it into an Underground Railroad museum.
“Mr. Westmoreland’s visit is a big deal,” Drye said. “He’s a notable historian with stature and is very interested in learning more about Plymouth. And if this is discovered to be part of the Underground Railroad, Plymouth and Washington County will be listed as state historic and Civil War sites.”
Drye said there are many procedures, including legal requirements, before any excavation work at the house could begin.
“In fact, we may have to use ground-penetrating radar to find the tunnels,” he said.