Hidden Nearby: New Milford’s Underground Railroad Monument

UGRR2

Two leading figures of the abolitionist movement, John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe, were natives of Litchfield County. As such, they would likely have been pleased by the county’s role in the Underground Railroad.  While much of the history of this secret route by which fugitive slaves were ushered to Canada is clouded in myth and legend, there is substantial documentation for a route that passed from the coast to Waterbury, then to New Milford, Washington, Torrington, Winchester and Winsted before crossing into Massachusetts.

NM Quaker

New Milford’s Quaker Meetinghouse, at 300 Danbury Road (Rt. 7).

Quakers took the lead in operations in New Milford, and the Old Friends’ Meetinghouse, which still stands on Route 7 south of town, was a prominent center of activity. Two Centuries of New Milford, an early 20th century history, documented the role of other locations in town in the Underground Railroad:

In the later days of slavery in the South there were several stations of the Underground      Railroad in this vicinity. Mr. Charles Sabin’s house in Lanesville was one, and the                house of Mr. Augustine Thayer on Grove Street in this village was another. Mr. Thayer      and his good wife devoted their lives to the Abolition cause. They helped many poor            slaves on their way, rising from their beds in the night to feed and minister to them, and      secreting them till they could be taken under cover of darkness to Deacon Gerardus          Roberts’ house on Second Hill, from there to Mr. Daniel Platt’s in Washington, and so        on, by short stages, all the way until the Canadian border was reached.

A second prominent stop in Washington was at the home of Frederick Gunn, who established the Gunnery School in 1849.

As fugitive slaves reached Torrington, they likely sought refuge at the home of Isaiah Tuttle and his son, Uriel, who lived in the Torringford section of town. Uriel was president of the Litchfield County and the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Societies. Of his anti-slavery activities, Deacon Thomas Miller wrote, “His efforts and undying zeal in the cause of emancipation are too well known to the public in this state to need a delineation… His house was literally a place of refuge for the panting fugitive, and his purse and team were often employed to help him forward to a place of safety.”

Isaiah Tuttle House, on Torringford Street, Torrington. Courtesy of Connecticut Freedom Trail

Isaiah Tuttle House, on Torringford Street, Torrington. Courtesy of Connecticut Freedom Trail

Other reported stops on the Underground Railroad include the home of Joshua Bird, a deacon at the Bethlehem Congregational Church who lived on the town Green. Henry Terry, grandson of the clockmaker, lived on North Street in Plymouth. An ardent abolitionist, he allegedly had tunnels running from his cellar to an outbuilding to whisk slaves to safety. The presence of tunnels like these fed Southern fears about Northern complicity in helping slaves escape, and the belief that the election of Lincoln in 1860 would lead to legalization of the Underground Railroad were major factors in the decision of southern states to secede from the Union in the winter of 1860-61. Interestingly, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued almost two years into the war, the number of fugitive slaves making their way to the north dropped precipitously, as they only needed to reach Union lines, not Canada, to achieve freedom.

UGRR1

Looking to commemorate her town’s role in the Underground Railroad, New Milford resident Frances Smith conceived the idea of a monument at the head of the town green, in the shadow of the Civil War monument. Sculptor Ray Crawford provided the design, which depicts a broken chain, symbolizing the end of slavery. The monument was dedicated on November 17, 2013.

East Cemetery: Floral Symbolism

Photojournalist Douglas Keister has written that “Plants, especially flowers, remind us of the beauty and brevity of life.” As such, they have been used to remember the dead since the time of the Egyptians. Aristotle even went so far as to state that plants had a soul. The use of the language of flowers as symbolism on gravestones peaked during the Victorian Era, which also marked the heyday of the use of cemeteries as gardens. Vestiges of this era of floral symbolism are common in Litchfield’s East Cemetery.

Rose

Elizabeth Phelps died at only twelve years of age in 1859.  Her gravestone included a rose, a flower rich in symbolism to the Victorians.  Since Elizabeth was so young, we are led to believe that this depicts a white rose, a symbol of purity. The fragrance and beauty of a rose was a reminder to visitors to the cemetery of the Paradise that awaited good Christians.

Palm

Zebulon Colmer, who lived to be 90, had his gravestone marked with a palm tree.  The story of Christ’s procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is, of course, well known to Christians.  In the Roman era, the palm was a symbol of victory, and Christians adapted this imagery to symbolize Christ’s victory over death, and thus, by extension, the afterlife achieved by good Christians.

Lily

Julia Henrietta Jones, who died in 1851 at the age of 46, was commemorated with a lily.  Lilies were symbols of chastity, but were also strongly associated with funerals, as their strong scent covered the foul smells associated with death.

Broken willow

The gravestone of Luna Norton depicts a broken willow tree, incorporating two Victorian symbols of death.  Weeping willows are symbolic of grief, but also of immortality, as the tree will continue to live despite having its branches cut off.  This was an exceedingly popular cemetery image in the early 1800s, and several willow trees can be found on graves in the East Cemetery.  Norton’s grave, however, depicts a broken willow, which seems to counteract the notion of immortality.  Broken trees symbolized lives that were cut short.

For more information on the symbolism of gravestones, see Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister.

For additional posts on the East Cemetery, see here, here and here.