Carol Murphy had heard rumors about her farm's history in the Underground Railroad before archaeologists surveyed the subterranean room next to her barn last summer. Her latest discovery came completely out of the blue.
It is too early to tell precisely what the discovery means, but it may suggest that the Underground Railroad, which most historians think did not use underground passageways, might have had some after all.
An offhand comment from a local resident who grew up next door to Murphy's Orchards on McClew Road got Ms. Murphy digging again in the large barn that now houses the farm's store.
"She (the local resident) came in one day and said, 'This place is no fun anymore, ever since they filled in the tunnels,' " recalled Ms. Murphy, who said she had never before heard talk of tunnels on the farm.
The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said that when she was in her early teens, in about 1973, she and a friend, who lived on the farm at the time, spent hours roaming at least three tunnels on the property.
"They were just dirt and stone," the woman recalled. "It wasn't constructed. It was just dug."
The woman remembered the main tunnel, which ran away from the barn toward the house in front, as being about five to six feet wide and about four to five feet high.
"The entrance was back over in there," she said, pointing toward a corner of the barn, which was a horse stall. "It was just open. Then they put a pony in the stall, so they covered up the hole so nobody could come in."
The tunnel went for about 25 feet, the woman said, before cave-ins blocked the path. Since their parents had forbidden them to go into the tunnels, the woman said she mostly remembers the "fear of it caving in on you and your parents going, 'Ha-ha, we told you so.' "
The woman said that her friend later told her that her parents, fearful of a collapse, had filled in the opening to the tunnel.
Based on the woman's recollections, Ms. Murphy, with the help of a farm worker with an archaeological background, began digging by the stall, but found nothing. She then decided to dig about five feet away, near a sinkhole that, no matter how often she filled it in, kept returning.
"When we dug, we developed this (foundation) wall," Ms. Murphy said, pointing to a stone foundation about six inches below the earthen floor of the barn. The wall, which bears no weight, appears to be unconnected to the existing barn.
Ms. Murphy said research she did when she bought the farm 20 years ago
turned up an old newspaper account that said the farm's barn had a basement, something not apparent today.
As she and a worker at the barn began digging around the foundation, they turned up items such as pottery pieces and aluminum can tops that seem to date from 25 to 30 years ago, about the time when the previous owners of the farm were supposed to have filled in the tunnel entrance.
Eric Larsen, a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University at Buffalo who helped conduct last summer's study of the underground room at the farm, said that any tunnels on the property were likely built for a practical purpose, perhaps to store or transport water, but that they then might have been used to move runaway slaves.
"Boy, I'd really like to come back and take a look," said Larsen, who is in Virginia working on a site related to his doctoral thesis.
Larsen and his partner on the dig, Gerard Thomas, do not expect to have their final report on the underground room ready until next spring but hope to have a summary report done shortly.
He said it is unlikely that the study will definitely show that the room was used to hide runaway slaves. The theory he is leaning toward is that it was built as a cistern to catch water coming off the barn roof.
But he said there is substantial oral history indicating that the farm was a way station on the Underground Railroad, making it very possible that the room was once used as a hiding place.
"I don't think archaeology is definitely going to say yes or no," he said. "We do have these stories that keep coming from various sources that this farm was used to hide runaway slaves."
Ms. Murphy is intrigued by the possibilities of what she has found:
"Maybe we'll find that the room that we thought was the hiding room wasn't all along, and that this was."