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Underground Railroad Center at
Historic Zercher’s Hotel

Press Release


The following press release was received from Randolph Harris, who has been instrumental in getting the Zercher Hotel site recognized by the National Park Service Network to Freedom as an official UGRR site.   For photographs from this event, click this link.

Christiana Underground Railroad Center at Historic Zercher's Hotel logoFOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 22, 2006
Contact: Louis J. Bond, owner - 717-665-2275
L.D. “Bud” Rettew, Christiana Historical Society – 610-593-5199
Randolph Harris, consultant - 717-808-2941
Sheri Jackson, National Park Service, Philadelphia, PA - 215-597-7050

Lancaster County’s First Public Underground Railroad
Visitor Center to Open in Christiana September 11;
Anniversary of Famous Resistance to Slavery in 1851

The 1851 Resistance at Christiana – a local flashpoint event that helped spark Civil War in America – will be commemorated in Lancaster County with a preview opening of a new visitor center from noon until 4 PM on Sunday, September 10, the eve of the event’s 155th anniversary.

Located at 11 Green Street in the Borough of Christiana in the former Zercher’s Hotel, the new center has been designed to give visitor’s an orientation to the significance of the Christiana Resistance, originally known as The Christiana Riot, which occurred near the Center on September 11, 1851.

Officially called The Underground Railroad Center at Historic Zercher’s Hotel, the site is Lancaster County’s first, free, publicly accessible visitor center that describes this area’s role in the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery activities within a building that is associated with this chapter in U.S. History.

The Center’s exhibits explain the role of Zercher’s Hotel in the Resistance at Christiana and the strident Anti-slavery sentiments held by the larger community. This community sentiment created the backdrop for the fatal confrontation. For the first time in one exhibit, the homes and farms of 24 Underground Railroad Stationmasters, located in seven municipalities in two counties, are documented. Many of these stationmasters’ homes still exist and can be seen from public roads, but none is open to visitors. Several other historic sites in Lancaster and Chester counties also are featured. These include churches, cemeteries and some private buildings that have been documented as having played roles in the anti-slavery movement in the early to mid-19th century.

The Center will be open for regular daily visitation beginning Monday, September 11. Hours are from 9 AM until 4 PM. The Center is wheelchair accessible. There is no entry fee but donations will be accepted. Proceeds will be used to maintain the Visitor Center.

The building will continue to serve as the offices of the Charles Bond Company, a maker of industrial gears and gear boxes at the site since 1915. Manufacturing began at the site in about 1830 with the advent of the Philadelphia to Columbia Railroad, one of the first railroad lines in the nation. This heritage is believed to give the property the distinction of being the oldest continually operating manufacturing site in Lancaster County. The Center is located in one room within the building and is accessible directly from the outside.

Through wall-mounted historical and contemporary photographs, maps, text panels and small artifacts, the Center has been designed to explain the Resistance at Christiana. Historians assert that the Resistance at Christiana and the subsequent criminal proceedings effectively undercut efforts to enforce the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and deeply polarized the nation.

The Christiana Underground Railroad Center is a joint project of the Charles Bond Company, the owners of the site, and the Christiana Historical Society. Project funding of just over $20,000 was provided by the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program and the Community Revitalization Program of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development.

The site was eligible for Federal funding since the Charles Bond Company in 2003 applied for and received a designation by the National Park Service that Zercher’s Hotel, built circa 1830, was directly associated with the Resistance and its aftermath in 1851. On September 17, 2003, the team of National Park Service historians that administers the Network to Freedom Program designated the Bond Company office an authentic site associated with this critical event in the heritage of the Underground Railroad and the national Abolition Movement.

This designation gave the Charles Bond Company the opportunity to apply for a National Park Service grant to create the Visitor Center to better tell the story of the Resistance and the circumstances that led to it. That grant was approved in July, 2005. The project has received letters of support from Christiana Historical Society; Lancaster County Historical Society; Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County; Lancaster-York Heritage Region; Lancaster County Convention and Visitors Bureau; Lancaster County Planning Commission; and from Fergus M. Bordewich, author of the recent book, Bound for Canaan, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, Amistad, 2005.

The Resistance: Background

The Center was also designed to give visitors an orientation to the larger community as it existed in the countryside surrounding Christiana in eastern Lancaster and western Chester counties. This region was a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity. A considerable number of African American families that resided in the area at the time of the Resistance, in partnership with the long-established Quaker community, were able to offer refuge and aid to freedom seekers.

The strong bi-racial anti-slavery community clashed with the efforts of a slave-owning farmer from Maryland who came to the Christiana area seeking the return of his “property.” This culminated in the events on September 11, 1851. Marylander Edward Gorsuch was killed in a fierce fight at the house of William Parker, a former slave and the leader of a local militia established to thwart the constant threat of kidnappers of African Americans in the community. Some of Gorsuch’s former slaves were staying at Parker’s house. Gorsuch’s son, Dickinson, was severely wounded but lived. A federal Marshall and his deputies were routed in the chaos of the confrontation. This act of open resistance to a federal law resulted in sweeping arrests on charges of treason of 38 men, all but four of whom were African Americans. Many played no part in the confrontation. One of the accused stood trial and was acquitted. All of the accused eventually were released.

Zercher’s Hotel is associated with these events as the location where Gorsuch’s body was taken after the fight. Also at Zercher’s Hotel the government’s official inquest began. The Resistance took place at the farm of Levi Pownall in Sadsbury Township, located about two miles southwest of the Borough of Christiana. William Parker and his family were tenants of Pownall and lived in a separate small stone house. This house was demolished in the 19th century; only a state roadside marker exists on rural Lower Valley Road to note this event. Thus, Zercher’s Hotel is the only remaining building that is associated with the Resistance.

The former hotel also is historically significant since many of those arrested were held in the building’s attic and were interviewed by Lancaster County’s noted U.S. Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868). The Abolitionist legislator also served as co-counsel for the defense. The Hotel also served as the town train station and it was from here that those who were arrested were taken to prison and trial in the days following the fight at Parker’s farmhouse.

Based on the site’s significance in the history of both early manufacturing and the Underground Railroad, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission determined in June, 2000 that the property was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. A nomination to officially list the site is pending.

Research, writing, photography and design of the exhibit was completed over the last year by community historians Randolph J. Harris of Mount Joy, Lancaster County and Nancy Plumley of Gap, Lancaster County. Plumley is the great-great granddaughter of two of the Underground Railroad Stationmasters whose roles in the larger story of community anti-slavery activity are told at the Center. In addition to research and writing efforts, she is responsible for adding some items to the presentation at the Center that have never been exhibited or published.

Harris and Darlene Colon, a Lancaster resident and President of Christiana Historical Society and a genealogist, wrote the original application to the National Park Service in 2003 that secured the federal designation as an official site of the National Network the Freedom Program. Harris also was hired by the Charles Bond Company to apply for the federal matching grant to create and install the exhibition materials. He is the former Executive Director of Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster and is now an independent consultant in the fields of historic preservation and community development. Most recently, he secured the National Park Service Network site designation for the grave and memorial of Thaddeus Stevens at the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery in the City of Lancaster.

L.D. “Bud” Rettew, the manager of the Borough of Christiana and the Treasurer of the Christiana Historical Society, also served as an advisor on the research and contents at the Center. He wrote the Center’s overview of the Resistance. Rettew is the author of the new book, Treason at Christiana, published this year.

Special assistance to the project was provided by the County of Lancaster and its Geographic Information Systems and Planning staffs. Kerri Lepp, GIS Analyst, executed the sponsors’ proposed design of the two-county regional map that forms the centerpiece display in the Visitor Center.

The physical rehabilitation work to prepare the Center for visitors was completed by Richard Wood, a contractor from Atglen, Chester County. James Groff, a Christiana resident and nationally recognized consultant in the rehabilitation and restoration of historic buildings, served as construction manager.

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This page was updated September 23, 2006.