Elmira: the Southern New York Hub of the UGRR

Mark Twain
Mark Twain (a.ka. Samuel Clemens)  is Elmira's most famous resident. He is buried there. His father-in-law was a prominent abolitionist and active in anti-slavery causes who helped in the funding of John W. Jones's operation there in the underground railroad.

According to a July 16, 1986 article in the Niagara Gazette, Elmira became a growing transportation center in the mid-19th century as railroads came into the city and use of the Chemung Canal increased ... increasing population brought money and created a more intellectual atmosphere.

New railroad routes contributed to Elmira's popularity in the Underground Railroad. Geography and transportation routes added to Elmira's appeal for the Underground Railroad. Elmira is at the center of several river valleys, which have always been the basis for transportation routes. With the construction of the Chemung Canal between the Chemung River and Seneca Lake in 1833 and the completion of railroad lines in 1850, Elmira had major connections with much of New York and Pennsylvania. The same valleys that attracted railroad and canal construction also attracted slaves running towards freedom because they were the easiest and fastest route to travel.

Elmira's illustrious John W. Jones served as one of the area's most successful and most used conductors. In all, he found shelter for more than 800 escaped slaves - many in his own home behind Elmira's First Baptist Church. Jones often received fugitives in parties of six to 10, but at times he assisted 30 men, women, and children at once.
Elmira was the only regular agency between Philadelphia and Canada. Some fugitives passed from Elmira through Ithaca and Trumansburg to Lake Ontario. Others made the trip through Hornell to the Niagara. Towanda, Big Flats, Burdett, and Spencer were other Underground stations.

When the railway from Williamsport (PAS) to Elmira was completed in 1854, Jones received many more fugitives by train, whom he shipped away in the 4 o'clock "Freedom Baggage Car." The railroad employees were friendly to the cause and placed them in the baggage cars for transport without charge through Watkins Glen and Canandaigua to Canada.

Jervis Langdon, Elmira merchant, and supporter of the underground railroad. According to papers left by Jones, the fugitives were often penniless when they arrived, and money had to be obtained to send them on their way. A few loyal men, including Jervis Langdon, James M. Robinson, William Yates, and Riggs Watrous, responded to frequent calls for contributions to replenish empty purses.

Elmira merchant, Jervis Langdon [father-in-law of Mark Twain] spent much of his money on social causes, particularly aiding runaway slaves, but there is no evidence he was a conductor, said Herbert Wisbey, retired history professor and first director of the Center of Mark Twain studies at Elmira College.

Elmira was considered a safe location for the fugitive slaves. Many of the fugitives who arrived in Elmira liked the area so much they decided to stay instead of continuing the journey toward the Canadian border.