Secret room discovered under house turns out to be part of American history
What’s buried beneath your home? Alexandra Poulos, a resident of Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, has an entire era of history buried beneath her house. She lived there nearly her entire life before she discovered the truth, and when she hired masons to dig beneath her house, they made a giant discovery.
1. She always felt there were hidden rooms in her house
Alexandra Poulos is a person that feels a deep connection to her childhood home. She’s an adult now, but she grew up there, and the house has been in her family since her parents bought it in 1974. Of course, she loved it, and because it was only 6 miles outside of Philadelphia, she suspected it had a history.
Poulos confided to a reporter in June of 2018 that “… when I was a child, I would have random dreams about there being other rooms in the house. I’d look it up on dream meanings sites and people always thought I just had a crazy imagination.” There were other rooms, but they were not in the house; they were underneath it.
2. A neighbor told them a secret about her house
“This is such a weird, odd story,” Poulos told the same reporter. At the time of the interview, she was 43 years old and was the sole owner of the house. With some emotion, she spoke about how she lost both her mother and her brother in the same year.
Her father was aging, so he signed the house over to his daughter. She moved in a tenant, and though it was a tough task for her to manage the house, she couldn’t give it up. It was around that time that she remembered a neighbor telling her father something odd about the house. They never looked into it, but the neighbor told her father that there was another level under the house’s basement.
3. Other houses in the area had a similar secret
The house started to become a real nuisance as problems began to mount. The house was heated by oil, and the oil tank was the first thing to fail. Then the walls began to buckle when a cast-iron sewer pipe began to crack.
Her tenants called her, and Poulos was immediately on the scene. She hired workers to repair the damage, and like a responsible landlord, she fixed the problem. But that night she couldn’t get to sleep. The visit to the basement made her think about what her neighbor had said. She got out of bed and started searching online. It was around 2 a.m. when she found it.
4. She had masons dig in her basement
Poulos previously hired masons to fix the walls of her basement, so she called one of them up the next morning. “I asked him if when he’s digging in the basement, ‘Can you dig a little deeper?’” she said. The man on the other end of the phone at Baldwin Masonry thought she was nuts.
But Poulos was persistent, and explained that she found an article about another house in the area that had a secret room underneath their house. The home was close by, and Poulos was convinced that home and her home shared a common thread. It turns out she was right.
5. They found something
The mason admitted he never heard of anyone trying to dig deeper to find a hidden room, but he was intrigued by Poulos’ story. The mason went to work the next day and that’s when Poulos got a call from her tenant. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “They found it.”
“You’re joking!” said Poulos, to which her tenant replied, “I swear to God, they found it. It’s a whole other area of the house.” Fourteen feet below her basement was a secret room that hid people on the run in the years before the Civil War. Poulos had just discovered a passage to the Underground Railroad.
6. Passage to the Underground Railroad
The room was meant to hide people who were fleeing their Southern masters. Often, they stopped in the area and then made their way north to Canada. All of a sudden, Poulos realized her house was a part of history, and she reached out to her local historical society.
Poulos was amazed by what she found out. The town she lives in is called Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, and prior to becoming a township 125 years ago, it was the home to some of the most well-known abolitionists in American history. Operations that were run out of nearby Philadelphia involved several towns close to the city, and Lansdowne was a major center of abolitionist activity.
7. Risking it all
The hidden room had been walled off from from the rest of the house, and even from within the basement, it was hidden from sight. It was a common safety measure employed by those who assumed the risk of harboring people as they made their way to the free North.
By doing so, the homeowners put themselves in danger of legal repercussions. But they felt it was the right thing to do, so they did it anyway, risk and all. Most of the time, people who provided shelter to those making their way north would also provide some provisions, including food and water.
8. Safe houses throughout the country
It was a long and dangerous road from the Deep South to the North, and those making their journey to freedom often had to rely on the help of others to successfully make it. They would have to move under the cover of night from one place to the next, and hope they wouldn’t be discovered as they traveled.
Poulos’ house isn’t the only one with secret quarters designed to hide people. There are many houses like this throughout the country. Even now, rooms like this one are periodically discovered in houses that date back to the Civil War era.
9. Secret entrances
Because catchers sometimes entered homes they suspected were safe houses searching for runaways, it was important to keep the entry points to these rooms out of sight and hard to find. For that reason, people are still discovering rooms in homes they have lived in for years.
Trapdoors in the floorboards, outside-access-only entry points, and attics with partitions (so that even if someone went in the attic, they still wound’t be able to see) were all methods used to keep people hidden. These houses had to be outfitted with these accommodations — another testament to the homeowners’ dedication to the cause.
10. Sharing what little they had
Most homeowners who took the risk of housing runaways weren’t well off. As such, the quarters they were able to provide were more often than not uncomfortable, dark, and bare. Still, for those who needed to seek refuge from the danger of the outside world, the conditions didn’t matter.
Perhaps it was the simple gesture of one person, a kind face, willing to put themselves at risk to help people find their way to freedom that made the sometimes shabby conditions more bearable. After all, those on the run had dealt with their share of cruelty prior to finding themselves in those rooms.
11. Another discovery
The room underneath the Poulos home was quite a find, and since the Underground Railroad was so active in the area, it happened in other places, too. Just to the east, a little closer to Philadelphia — in a town called Harrisburg — a home was being demolished when construction workers made the discovery.
Not only was there a room that served as a hiding place, but there was also a tunnel that led away from the home. It had been there the entire time the owner had lived there; a piece of American history was simply buried beneath the ground and forgotten about for over a century.
12. ‘The whole side fell down’
The construction crew at the site gave a humorous account of how the underground room was discovered, saying, “After we dug that out, we were just standing around talking, and the whole side fell down. That’s when we noticed the hole.” And in the hole laid the secret to the past.
Just as Poulos called her local historical society, so too did the workers. The investigation was taken up by the the Middletown Area Historical Society, and they believe the answer to the mystery of whom the room housed and who owned the house laid behind one of the walls. Now they have plans to knock it down, and see what’s behind it.
13. 150 years’ worth of artifacts
Renovations on the three-story Continental Inn also resulted in stumbling upon another safe house used during the Underground Railroad. Owners Frank and Patty Lyons bought the inn with the idea of fixing it up and reopening it, but the discovery by contractors turned them into amateur archaeologists.
Lyons had to descend 10 feet down a ladder before he entered into the room made up of vertically stacked stones. Artifacts from a century-and-a-half ago littered the room, and were originally stacked several feet high. Since then, Lyons has been removing them, and as he gets closer to the bottom, he’s getting closer to the Underground Railroad.
14. The stories are true about the Continental Inn
The Continental Inn achieved local legend status prior to the discovery. It was believed the inn was part of the Underground Railroad, but there wasn’t any proof. That all changed when Lyons discovered the room, and it prompted one African American resident to say, “This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life.”
Lyons is still sifting through the rocks and litter in the room. Like many safe houses and secret rooms from the Underground Railroad era, the room beneath the Continental Inn was used as a hiding place during Prohibition. This means there’s a lot that has nothing to do with the Underground Railroad, but Lyons is looking for something very specific.
15. Tunnels connected nearly the entire town
Lyons believes that the most likely artifacts he’ll find are Caribbean seashell amulets. They were meant to ward off evil spirits, and given the dangers associated with running the Underground Railroad, slaves would likely be traveling with the amulets.
The town of Yardley, where the Continental Inn resides, is a honeycomb of tunnels that link safe houses all over the place. There are secret rooms in the warehouse bins that run near the Delaware Canal, a mill, a house called Lakeside Mansion, the general store, and a house on Main Street. There are many safe houses that reside in the towns surrounding Philadelphia, and the stories of the abolitionists who ran them are incredible.
16. The area was known for being an abolitionist hub
Poulos found out that Lansdowne, which resides in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, has been around since 1789. Nine years before that, in 1780, the state passed its Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act. This meant that Pennsylvania was an early adopter of abolition, but it should be noted theirs was the most lenient of laws passed in the early years of the United States.
The reason was that Pennsylvania was still very much divided over the issue of slavery, just like the rest of the nation. Anyone who helped people escape from the South had to hide them, and Poulos’ house did just that. It also spoke to the grim realities of the Underground Railroad.
17. The ‘Father of the Underground Railroad’
Many people say that the Underground Railroad wasn’t actually “underground” at all, but they would be incorrect. Of course, it wasn’t an actual railroad, as it was more like a path. When it came to staying out of sight, many people hid in underground rooms, like the one under Poulos’ house, along the way.
By 1850, the Underground Railroad ran all the way from the Deep South to Canada. That was largely thanks to the ex-slave who was known as the “Father of the Underground Railroad.” His name was William Still, and his base of operations was just 6 miles from the Poulos home.
18. The house was in a hotbed of abolitionist activity
William Still, Thomas Garrett, and Harriet Tubman were all exceptionally important figures in the history of the Underground Railroad. They went to extraordinary lengths to help countless people escape the shackles of slavery, and in the process, willingly put themselves in grave danger.
William Still, the “Father of the Underground Railroad,” ran a complex network of safe houses that stretched from Philadelphia all the way to Ontario, Canada. One of his main contacts was Thomas Garrett, who Still later said “was a man of unusual personal bravery.” This was because Garrett was confronted many times about his role in helping people escape to Canada.
19. Pennsylvania was divided on the issue
It turns out that Pennsylvania was far from a progressive state. Northern states were quick to pass laws that made the terrible institution of slavery illegal, but there was still a lot of social division. Pennsylvania, for example, outlawed slavery early, but then took voting rights away from free blacks in 1838.
If this seems confusing, that’s because it is. But it is not without explanation. Northern whites deplored the idea of slavery, but sadly, very few of them wanted to live with Africans and African Americans in their communities. That made it difficult for abolitionists to help people, and very difficult for free people to live in Delaware County.
20. Delaware County was heavily involved in the Underground Railroad
Oftentimes, free blacks were forced to register with town officials and limit their movements. These types of violations of basic rights were all too common, even in the North. They were also frequently met with race riots, hostility, and other assaults, even when in public.
When people came to Delaware County, Pennsylvania, in the 1850s, they didn’t stay there. They just hid. Because it was so difficult, Delaware County produced one of the most notorious abolitionists in American history. The Poulos home was in a hotbed of anti-slavery activity, and was near the center of the abolitionist movement and hubs of the Underground Railroad.
21. Thomas Garrett was a freedom fighter
Thomas Garrett was born on August 21, 1789, about five minutes away from the Poulos home. He grew up in Delaware County, and even before he set up a network of safe houses close to his home, he was a staunch abolitionist.
Pennsylvania was founded by the Quaker William Penn, and in true Pennsylvania fashion, Garrett grew up in a Quaker household. This became important, as Quakers were some of the most ardent abolitionists. When he was just a young man, he already knew how he felt about slavery, and then showed his passion for the cause when bandits kidnapped a woman that he knew.
22. Why Garrett got involved
Thomas Garrett’s father was a farmer, but he was also a toolmaker by trade. One day, when he came home to his parents’ house, he could see that they were very upset. They told him that a woman whom they employed had been kidnapped.
Garrett was enraged and he immediately took off after the kidnappers. He was a clever tracker, and noticed an irregularity in the tracks of the wagon the kidnappers used. He got close to them in the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, then actually found them in Kensington. He wasn’t a violent man, but according to Still, he was able to secure her release.
23. Southerners fought back
Southerners were furious with this sort of activity, especially because it involved people escaping to the North. Southern lawmakers managed to pass national laws to make sure their “property” was returned. Not only that, but they sought to punish the people who helped them, such as the ones offering up hiding places in what were known as safe houses.
Despite these difficulties, the Underground Railroad operated in Pennsylvania in the 1830s until the Civil War. Nobody knows exactly how many people escaped to freedom, but Southerners became increasingly upset that the North flagrantly disobeyed their laws. As a result, in 1850, the second Fugitive Slave Law was passed. Despite the increased danger, this only strengthened Still and Garrett’s resolve.
24. Still started helping people find their way north when he was a child
William Still is quite the individual, and he first became involved in the cause when he was just a child, when he helped a man escape from slavery. He later said that he didn’t know who the man was, or even remember his name. But the man was trying to find freedom in the North, and was being pursued. Still didn’t hesitate to help him.
When he reached adulthood, Still became a humble Philadelphia store clerk by day, and architect of the Underground Railroad by night. He became extremely active in the community, and set up a network of safe houses all over Pennsylvania and beyond — one of which included the room beneath the Poulos’ house!
25. Still helped a family escape
Still gained notoriety and became a target of catchers, but that wasn’t entirely a bad thing. When word got out that William Still was helping people on the run, they knew to find him if they needed help. One case in particular stands out among the rest and gained national attention.
A woman named Jane Johnson was traveling with her master through Philadelphia. Her master had just been appointed the U.S. minister to Nicaragua, and he intended to bring Johnson and her two sons with him. But the journey required a trip through Philadelphia, and that’s where she made a desperate plea for help.
26. Still raced to save her
Johnson’s master, a man named John Wheeler, checked into a Philadelphia hotel with Johnson and her sons. Johnson was appalled at the idea of her family leaving the United States, and wanted to get out. When Wheeler left the hotel, he gave her instructions to talk to no one, but she disobeyed him.
Johnson managed to get word to a hotel clerk that she wanted to get her family out, and there was only one person for the job: William Still. But time was of the essence, as Wheeler gathered Johnson and her sons shortly after and headed for the boat. It was a race against time to get there first.
27. Fight at the dock
Still, a white abolitionist named Passmore Williamson (pictured here), and five dockworkers approached Wheeler and Johnson and her sons. They stopped them in their tracks, then Still explained to Johnson that she had rights in Pennsylvania that enabled her to leave her master. Johnson obviously decided that she wanted to leave, and that’s when Wheeler became violent.
The dockworkers held him back, and Johnson went with Still. For the next two months, Johnson was hidden in New York, and various places around Philadelphia. The ensuing trial would try and put Still in jail, while Johnson hid with her sons in various places, much like the one under the Poulos house.
28. Still was arrested and put on trial
Still was put on trial for helping Johnson, and was accused of kidnapping her. But for his defense, he argued that it was Johnson’s choice to come with him, and to make it even less of a kidnapping, he didn’t even know where Johnson was hiding.
Still was eventually acquitted, as his actions were aligned with the law at the time. Johnson then settled in with an abolitionist not far from Delaware County, and close to Philadelphia. After all, Pennsylvania had the largest population of free black people in the country. But there were still extreme dangers for those who participated in abolitionist activity.
29. On the run
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stipulated that people helping runaways escape could face up to six months in jail and/or be fined $1,000. With this kind of climate, people on the run were unlikely to stay in Pennsylvania, opting instead for relaxed laws in Canada. Things were heating up as the nation became more divided on the issue.
So, many safe houses in Pennsylvania were constructed like the one beneath the Poulos home. The one under her house wasn’t meant to house many people for an extended period of time, as it was only 15 feet down, about 9 feet wide, and 9-and-a-half feet long. People on the run didn’t spend a long time in Pennsylvania, and from what Garrett went through, it’s not a mystery why that is.
30. Harriet Tubman used safe houses in Pennsylvania
Thomas Garrett had a close friend that may have been the most famous figure in the history of the Underground Railroad, and her name was Harriet Tubman. Tubman was a slave herself until she escaped to Pennsylvania in late 1849, and over the next decade she is said to have helped guide between 70–300 people to freedom (she didn’t keep records).
Because of her status and notoriety, Tubman had to spend a good deal of time in Canada. She still made the venture into the United States because she had a fantastic network of support. She’d stay in safe houses like the one underneath the Poulos house, and travel mostly by night.
31. Thomas Garrett and Harriet Tubman were good friends
Harriet Tubman once said, “There are two things I had a right to — liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other, for no man should take me alive.” Tubman was one tough lady, as she traveled armed and was known to go to great lengths for children and babies to keep quiet while on the run.
These extreme lengths put her in constant jeopardy, but they paid off because Tubman was never caught (her two brothers were caught when they fled their masters with her). Even with all the gumption in the world, Tubman needed friends, and Thomas Garrett was one of her best. For their efforts, a park and statue were dedicated to them in Wilmington, Delaware, which is fitting, because their relationship ran deep.
32. Thomas Garrett paid for Tubman’s parents’ release
Thomas Garrett helped Harriet Tubman in many ways. He supplied her with food for her journeys and lodging, which included hiding her at times. He also provided her with shoes for her many long 90-mile treks from Pennsylvania to the Deep South.
Garrett also never hesitated to supply Tubman with money, including one time when he gave her funds to secure her parents’ release. They weren’t slaves at the time, but her father was in trouble for his own efforts in the Underground Railroad. While helping Tubman didn’t bring severe drama to Garrett, he still faced extreme circumstances while helping other people make their way north.
33. Quakers were big participants in the Underground Railroad
Thomas Garrett was born a Quaker, and while Quakers were pacifists, they were nonetheless fighters. Quakers have been advocates for equality since their inception into North America. They fought for the rights of Native Americans, abolition, and after the Civil War, engaged in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
Quakers were the first to outlaw slavery in the country, by creating a self-imposed ban on the practice long before the law of the land reflected the same thing. This belief, shared by Garrett, put Quakers in the crosshairs, as tolerance was not a popular virtue of the time. Still claims only a handful of neighbors supported Garrett, and often they got hostile.
34. Garrett was fearless
People knew to come to Garrett for help, and catchers used that knowledge to harass Garrett constantly. According to Still, Garrett never wavered, even in the face of his opposition brandishing guns and knives. So devout was he in his beliefs that he didn’t even bother denying that he helped people make their escape.
But reports say that he never did give them any information other than the fact that he’d seen them. “None but cowards resorted to such means to carry their ends,” Still reported Garrett as saying. Garrett would go to extraordinary lengths to help people make their way to the North, including an instance that cost him everything he owned on planet Earth.
35. Thomas Garrett lost everything
A complaint was brought against Garrett in 1848 when he helped a family escape from Maryland. A judge found that he had caused the master considerable harm, and awarded “every dollar of his property” to the master.
This only caused Garrett to dig in more. He gave a rousing hour-long speech in the courtroom that caused one of the jurors to beg him for forgiveness. Garrett also proclaimed that he would “redouble” his efforts in fighting slavery. That was a good thing, because the trial was well covered, and Garrett became known countrywide as an abolitionist.
36. How to change your mind
It certainly was no coincidence that a case involving Thomas Garrett ended up in front of a judge. He was very unpopular in the South and among supporters of slavery in the North, so much so that enemies of his put a $10,000 bounty on his head if they could catch Garrett in any activity that helped people escape.
Two men eventually did show up to Garrett’s door in an effort to get him caught. Instead of fighting with them, Garrett invited them in for dinner, and the three men had a discussion about slavery. Evidently, Garrett was a great communicator, because by the time the men left, they decided to abandon their plan.
37. Both were known as ‘Moses’
Though Garrett was already 60 years old, he managed to get himself back on his feet and make good on his claim. He continued his efforts right up until the moment slavery was outlawed and the rights of black men were guaranteed by the Constitution.
In a parade in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, newly freed people marched celebrating their newfound universal freedom. An aged Thomas Garrett rode a barouche and was surrounded by people carrying signs that said, “Our Moses.” A similar honor was bestowed on his friend Harriet Tubman, whose nickname then and forever is also “Moses,” after the ancient prophet who led his people away from their captors in Egypt.
38. Oak tree for Garrett
Garrett lived into his 80s and died on January 25, 1871. Because activity in the Underground Railroad was illegal at the time, the event is devoid of a major record of details (with one notable exception), so we’ll never know the full extent of Garrett’s or any other abolitionists’ efforts.
When Garrett died, his will requested that his coffin be carried by black men, and that his funeral be done in full Quaker fashion. His tombstone is decidedly tiny, as it’s about the size of a loaf of bread. But city officials thought his modest tombstone didn’t do enough for the giant of a man, so they planted an oak tree next to his grave in his honor.
39. Underneath the Poulos house
The main reason why we know anything about Thomas Garrett, Harriet Tubman, and the rest of the Underground Railroad is because of William Still and the extremely meticulous records he kept. Not long after the Civil War, he wrote The Underground Railroad, and it provides most of the information we know about the Underground Railroad.
It’s also why we know about Thomas Garrett and a network of safe houses in the North, especially Pennsylvania. One room in the Poulos house is an artifact of the rich history that was nearly forgotten for a time after the Civil War. But now that it’s been unearthed, we’re peeling back the pages of history to find out why it’s there, and what an important piece of history it is for so many innocent people who faced the institution of slavery.