WALKING IN WILLIAM STILL'S STEPS: Guided Hike & Community Conversation

By Fairmount Park Conservancy (other events)

3 Dates Through Oct 07, 2023

Join Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on Saturday, October 7 from 10:00 AM–2:00 PM for an Underground Railroad history hike and talk in West Fairmount Park.

On his 202nd birthday, we honor the “Father of the Underground Railroad”, William Still (born October 7, 1821), and all those freedom seekers who traversed the lands of present-day Fairmount Park. Join us for a hike through West Fairmount Park in the morning followed by a conversation in the afternoon focused on how public historians can expand and support narratives of 19th century Black Americans in Philadelphia.

The 3.5-mile loop hike will visit places of historical significance, some with connections to the Underground Railroad. Stops include Ridgeland Mansion (c.1762) Boelsen Cottage (c.1684), Belmont Mansion (c.1742), and physical remnants of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, which was a means of clandestine conveyance for freedom seekers in the mid-19th century.

Preview of the hike route HERE

The walk will begin at Ridgeland Mansion’s barn at 10:00 AM and return there for a noon lunchtime discussion. The hike will feature immersive experiences led by historic storyteller and “Conductor” Dee Patterson of UGR3DAY Underground Railroad Experiences Inc. and Gilletta “Gigi” McGraw, portraying free Black woman Cornelia Wells. 

From 12:30-2:00 PM, there will be a panel discussion and community conversation with historians Emma Lapsanksy-Werner and Andrew Diemer, moderated by Justina Barrett of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Space is limited in the Ridgeland barn’s conference center so please register only if you intend to come. The $15 ticket includes a boxed lunch (sandwich, chips, cookie, and drink) provided by Joshua’s Catering. We will follow up with your sandwich choices (meat or vegan). 

-Guided hike only: Free RSVP
-Guided hike + community conservation and lunch: $15
-Community conversation and lunch (no hike): $15

-The hike is roughly 3.5 miles in length, with a combination of open parkland and hilly trails
-Appropriate for adults and families with children ages 10 & up. Minors must be registered and accompanied by an adult.
-Please dress according to weather conditions and wear good hiking shoes (boots/sneakers).
-Please bring your own water and snacks (drinking water is not available in the park).
-There are bathrooms at the start/end of the hike and a couple of porta-potties available along the hike route.
-Bring sunscreen and bug spray.

PARKING/GETTING THERE: Please park in the lot near The Barn at Ridgeland Mansion. When you turn into the driveway for Ridgeland Mansion, please follow the ‘William Still Walk’ directional signage to the correct lot. As always, NEVER leave valuables in your car! If traveling by public transit, the nearest stop is at Ford and Cranston Road (a one-mile walk from the start). The nearest Indego bike station is at MLK Drive and Strawberry Mansion Bridge (about one mile away).

INCLEMENT WEATHER POLICY: This event will take place in light rain. In the event of heavy rain or other severe conditions, the event will be canceled and attendees will be notified and eligible for a full refund.

QUESTIONS? Please reach out to [email protected]

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MORE ABOUT WILLIAM STILL: William Still (1821-1902) is one of the Underground Railroad's most important yet largely unheralded individuals. Still was chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society who risked his life shepherding people to freedom via a complex network of abolitionists, sympathizers, and safe houses that stretched from Philadelphia north to Canada. Over the course of fourteen years, he helped nearly a thousand enslaved Africans escape bondage, which is why he’s considered the “Father of the Underground Railroad.”  

In 1872, Still published the Underground Railroad, sourced from the secret notes and meticulous records of the many freedom seekers who passed through the Philadelphia "station.”  The book is the only first-person account of the Underground Railroad written and self-published by an African-American.  It was also the only African-American achievement exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in West Fairmount Park. To this day, the book contains some of the best evidence we have of the workings of the Underground Railroad, detailing the freedom seekers who used it, including where they came from, how they escaped, and the families they left behind. 

MORE ABOUT THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD’S CONNECTION TO PRESENT-DAY FAIRMOUNT PARK: Freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad traveled by foot, by wagon, by boat, and by train, including the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, an actual above-ground railroad that passed through present-day Fairmount Park. William Still coordinated with William Whipper and Stephen Smith, African-American businessmen who regularly shipped lumber from Columbia to Philadelphia. They built special boxcars with false ends to conceal freedom seekers on freight cars of trains that carried both cargo and passengers. In 2013, the National Park Service designated the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad (now part of Amtrak's Keystone Corridor) as an official site on the "National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom." This railroad traversed the Belmont Plateau via an "inclined plane" and continued over the Schuylkill on the Columbia Bridge, terminating at Broad & Vine Streets. Some historians contend that when the city-bound trains came to a stop to be pulled down the inclined plane, this was the time and place for freedom seekers to furtively escape into the woods and farmlands of the Belmont Plateau before the Vine St. Depot, where bounty hunters awaited.