John W. Jones was born into slavery on a plantation in Loudoun County Virginia on June 21, 1817. When he was 27 years old, he and two of his half-brothers along with several other slaves from nearby farms, escaped and made a month-long journey from Virginia through Pennsylvania's rugged mountain passes on foot until they reached Elmira. Finding assistance along the way by stops on the underground Railroad in Philadelphia,Williamsport, Alba, and South Creek, they covered 300 miles.
Once in Elmira in 1844, Jones proved industrious and found the favor of several prominent families who gave him work and a chance at education. Within three years of arriving, he served as sexton of the First Baptist Church, which rebuilt a year later a more spacious building. He kept this position until yet a larger church was built in 1890, the present structure which stands on the corner of Church Street and Main Street, when he finally retired to his farm property about a mile north of the church.
|First Baptist Church|
During his over 40 years as sexton, he lived in a yellow house next to First Baptist, in close proximity with the railroad and Erie Depot. From 1850 on until emancipation, it is believed that he arranged safe passage for at least 800 runaway slaves--men, women and children--on Elmira's northbound trains to Canada. The Williamsport and Elmira line, later called the Northern Central, ferried anywhere from 6-12 people at a time on the 4 AM "Freedom Baggage Car" to the New York Central in Canandaigua, and eventually all the way to Ontario. It is likely he housed these journeying stowaways in his home in between arrival and departure, and his wife Rachel almost certainly fed many mouths in these ten years.
Elmira had many Abolitionist-minded citizens who offered aid, among them Jervis Langdon, famed father-in-law to Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain). It is notable that Langdon housed and aided Frederick Douglass in his escape from Maryland in the Autumn of 1838 in his house in Millport, NY, a mere ten miles from Elmira.
Simeon Benjamin, founder of Elmira Female College, was another prominent financial contributor to the work.
Reverend Thomas K. Beecher, the pastor of the Independent Congregational Church that would come to be known as Park Church, also contributed to the cause. He was brother to famous authoress Harriet Beecher Stowe and orator Henry Ward Beecher.
Beecher's Park Church was founded by a desire among its members to further the work of Abolition. The Christian revivals of the 1830s had sparked a religious sentiment into a flame of ardor through Central New York, called the "Burned-Over District", and many Elmirans had been caught up in the blaze of this revival, smoldering within them a desire for social change.
John Selover was an Elmira man with ties to Colonizationalist and Emancipationist Gerrit Smith, who aided John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.
The Underground Railroad and Abolitionist history in Elmira is extensive, and ultimately leads to Emancipation and the Civil War. In the next part of the series on John W. Jones, we will look at his redemptive role in Elmira's infamous history during the period when Elmira housed a death camp for Confederates.