As Interstate 68 curves through Cumberland, Md., the speed limit drops from 70 miles per hour to 40, providing drivers an opportunity to glimpse a historic church that once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
“It’s a beautiful church, and definitely eye-catching, in the city or from the interstate,” said Cumberland Local 307 Business Manager Rodney Rice, talking about the Emmanuel Parish of the Episcopal Church.
While the congregation itself dates back to the late 1700s, Emmanuel’s current building has graced the city’s skyline since 1851. And thanks to recent wiring and systems upgrades by Local 307 members working for signatory contractor Metz Electric, Emmanuel should stand on that Cumberland hilltop for many years to come.
Owner Robert Metz considered it an honor to work on the church. “When you live in a small town, you get recognized for your work,” he said. “It has an exponential effect that spreads through the community and the region. It’s home, not just where we work.”
Emmanuel overlooks the Potomac River in the middle of Maryland’s western panhandle. In 1756, what was once a modest trading post on that site became Fort Cumberland, a major British stronghold in the American Colonies. Able to support nearly 5,000 people, the fort was a key stronghold in the French and Indian War. Several tunnels were built beneath it, for food and gunpowder storage as well as for personnel to gain secure access to the fort’s interior.
Eventually, the surrounding city of Cumberland outgrew its need for the fort, and in 1803, Emmanuel bought a part of the property from the government. Gradually, the fort itself was dismantled, although the tunnels remained.
Under the leadership of Rev. David Buel, the Gothic Revival structure and the tunnels it concealed became an important stop on the Underground Railroad, the network of covert routes used by anti-slavery allies to help African-American slaves escape captivity from the southern states.
The Railroad was illegal and dangerous — recaptured slaves could be hanged — so few written records about it were kept, leaving much of its history to be passed down through storytelling.
Although Maryland remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, it still permitted slavery for almost two full years after President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation officially ended the practice.
As the stories go, escaped slaves who made it to Cumberland would first hide in a shanty town downhill from the church. At night, Emmanuel’s sexton would ring the church’s bells in a coded way to signal that it was safe for fugitives to enter the tunnels. Later, Railroad guides would sneak escapees to freedom in Pennsylvania, about five miles north. The Civil War’s end in 1865 also meant the end of the Railroad.
Emmanuel underwent a series of renovations in the following years. The congregation even paid one of America’s premier glass artists, Louis Comfort Tiffany, in 1905 to redesign the church’s interior. Stained-glass windows and other objects, crafted by Tiffany’s artisans and others, were installed in the church over the next couple of decades.
The church also gradually installed modern conveniences such as electric lights, telephone lines, and security systems. Workers placed the various control panels inside the tunnels.
Recently, the alarm system began showing its age. The church’s board members sought help from Metz and members of Local 307, who estimated that it had been decades since any major wiring work had been done.
“Their security kept failing and constantly false-alarming,” he said. “Everything was old and needed replaced. It wasn’t adequate for what they were trying to cover.” The board also asked the contractor about installing a better fire alarm system, too.
While Metz’s two-month project centered on the panels in the tunnels, he also worked in the church’s sanctuary, its organ chamber, and even its steeple.
“We had real concerns going in,” he said. For example, they had to figure out a way to preserve the church’s historic infrastructure while fishing cables behind and through 150-year-old plaster walls.
The contractor felt well equipped to handle it. “Being a small contractor in a small area, we end up doing some general contracting as well,” Metz said. “Our goal was making it look like the wiring was there from the beginning.”
The church’s board was happy with the results, and Rice attributed that satisfaction to the advantage of working with a small contractor like Metz Electric. “Bob is one of our only contractors who does residential,” he noted. “We’d like to have more like them.”
“The threads of the IBEW are there,” Metz said. “We have a good feeling knowing that the church will still be there, thanks to our work.
For information about the church and its tunnels, visit emmanuelparishofmd.org.