Saturday, March 10, 2012

Underground Railroad Center, Christiana, PA

This is Historic Zercher's Hotel located in Christiana, PA and is now the site of the first public Underground Railroad Center. Opened on September 11, 2006, it tells the story of the Christiana Riot, which took place not far from this location 161 years ago on September 11, 1851.  This is considered to be one of the first confrontations that led up to the American Civil War.  
You can't see me unless you blow up the picture, but I'm sitting on the bench on the far left.
The story actually begins at freed slave William Parker's residence where Maryland plantation owner Edward Gorsuch and his son, Dickinson came to retrieve 4 of his runaway slaves that had taken refuge in Parker's home.  The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave permission for a slave owner to take back his property (runaway slaves) wherever they were found and in the process arrest those who had harbored them or prevented them being returned to the owner.  

When Edward Gorsuch called for Parker to return his property to him, Parker resisted and thus began the fighting.  Four Quakers and 34 former slaves stood against Gorsuch, who was killed in the riot. His son was critically wounded, but not killed.  He was taken into the nearby farm of the Pownell family, where he recovered. Parker was actually a tenant of the Pownell's and his house was on their property.
This sign marks the site of freed slave William Parker's residence where the resistance began. The house was demolished in 1895.  There are no remains.
Meanwhile, Gorsuch's body was brought here to Zercher's Hotel. This is also where a government inquest began regarding the Christiana Riot. 
Monument commemorating the Christiana Riot.
The hotel was built in 1830 and is now the offices of the Charles Bond Corporation who have been at this location since 1915. They are the producers of industrial gears and gear boxes.   The company started off as the Christiana Machine Company which began its operation in 1834 until its sale to Charles Bond in 1915.  It is adjacent to Zercher's Hotel historic site.  One of the first railroad lines in the nation ran through here, the Columbia to Philadelphia line, but there is nothing left of that to be seen.  However, there is a railroad bridge not too far away.  We didn't go, it had just rained the night before and we were warned by our guide, Mark, that the trail to walk there would be muddy.  

The museum is free, but it is only open by appointment on the weekends.  The rest of the week it is open from 9 am to 4 pm.  It is a self guided museum with interesting exhibits regarding the riot.   This is highly recommended.  Mark was extremely informative and spoke to us for over 2 hours that Saturday morning.  This is definitely the place where freedom began.

Updated:  There is something that I forgot to mention and I'd like to add it now.  Dickinson Gorsuch had a younger brother whose name was Thomas. He was only 15 years old when his father was killed and was left an orphan.  He and his family were devastated when a not guilty verdict was rendered by the jury.  Thomas complained bitterly to a friend who would later refer to Thomas as his "bosom friend" and about how Northern abolitionists left him an orphan. It also weighed heavily on his mind that his father's  killers were set free without punishment and that these were "injustices that called out for revenge."  That friend who Thomas confided in was none other than John Wilkes Booth who would shoot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre 14 years later. 

As usual, there are more links down below:

Christiana Underground Railroad Center as listed in the Lancaster County online guide.. 

Article on the history of Zercher's Hotel and the history of the Christiana Riot. It was actually a press release for the opening of the Underground Railroad Center.  There are pictures of the opening ceremony on September 11, 2006. 
Records and history of the Christiana Machine Company


  1. Welcome back, Clyde...I've missed you!
    What a great history surrounding the Zercher's Hotel. Especially interesting to read the last paragraph referring to John Wilkes Booth's connection to the story. Thanks for the history lesson, Clyde!

  2. Just watched, "who do you think you are" on TV.
    Zooey Deschanel found out about her 5 times Grandmother Elizabeth Pownell and the huge part she played in protecting the freed slaves. Her property was where the riot took place. Amazing.

  3. History is about accuracy: it is Pownall not Pownell.Named after a place in Cheshire England. Great photos!