When demolition of a condemned property in Middletown unearthed the entrance to an old 60-foot chamber, speculation began that it was part of the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, the chances of it being linked to the network of abolitionists who helped runaway slaves escape are slim.
The Underground Railroad, America's first civil rights movement, operated in the decades that led up to the Civil War. In the early days, abolitionists worked the system using a medley of legal tricks, gimmicks and shenanigans to help slaves along their way -- and protect them from being returned to slavery. However even this assistance from progressive-minded folks ignores the major player in the system: the fugitive himself. (Typically, it was male slaves, perhaps teens through men in their 30s, who were more likely to run away.)
Fugitives did run away from slaveholders, mostly slaveholders in the South because the Northern states abolished slavery by the early 1800s. Runaways were most successful when they left Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. Almost all of the time, fugitives made the most dangerous part of the journey, through the slaveholding territory to a free state, by themselves. Slaves kept in states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia had little chance of a land journey to freedom.
Pennsylvania's location made it a vital link in the underground network of people willing to help slaves, in fact, the southeast region of the state covering Lancaster County through Philadelphia might be called "Underground Railroad Central." The Quaker population in and around Philadelphia was a big contributor to this effort, especially in the network's early days.
Despite the focus on the southeast, every county of Pennsylvania has documented Underground Railroad activity. Yes, it's been well-documented. For some reason, there is a great deal of speculation that it was so secret that it's impossible to find out what happened, which is not true at all. Underground Railroad activity has been documented.
Equally misleading is the idea that the Underground Railroad frequently "hid" the fugitives. It's common for people to jump to conclusions about the Underground Railroad when a hidden room is found, yet it's extremely rare to find any type of construction built especially for hiding fugitives. It was also rare for slave catchers to be in "hot pursuit" of fugitives.
For those reasons, the Underground Railroad was more HARBORING and less HIDING. In Warren County, Pennsylvania, a series of richly documented sites show that fugitives frequently stopped on their journey (mainly from the region that later became West Virginia). They stayed in quarters like other farm workers. Underground agents taught them to read, helping them to pass that test, as it was unlawful to teach slaves to read in the South. A literate fugitive just might pass the reading test and convince slavecatchers he was simply a free Black man. The agents also provided clothing, and gave them jobs that allowed them to save for the next part of their journey. It was an open secret, as fugitives often stayed for months.
Lancaster County's Thaddeus Stephens helped runaways in Lancaster, but more importantly, owned an iron furnace where he employed fugitive slaves in Franklin County, in what is now Caledonia State Park. Stephens' iron furnace was another open secret, and it angered the Southerners so much that Jubal Early took his troops their to burn the place down during the Gettysburg Campaign.
Historians have pieced together information about the Underground Railroad for 100 years now. In some parts of New England, one common style home from the 1800s had short doorways into a storage area in the second floor. Many people who visit one of the surviving homes conclude that it could be used to hide slaves since these doors could easily be hidden behind furniture, but that's not how history works. History comes from evidence, not hidden rooms. It has nothing to do with quilts, either. With 150 years of evidence, quilts were never mentioned as a part of the Underground Railroad, but somebody came up with the idea that quilts were "maps" for fugitives and wrote a book. Nobody was going around teaching slaves to read secret quilt symbols at various plantations, and no evidence has shown fugitives relied on quilts. That's bad history.
The evidence seldom is there to back up old, hidden chambers being built to hide fugitive slaves most of the time. Without that evidence, Middletown has itself a cellar for cool food storage, or you might even say it's an unused and forgotten room. With some evidence, perhaps it may have been a speakeasy, but that seems unlikely. In any case, no historian would tie it to the Underground Railroad or Prohibition without verifying exactly when the building originated.