May 9, 2022 |Kyle Shenk | Land

Saving Mifflin House Through Partnership and Perseverance

The Mifflin House sits on an 87.5-acre property on the outskirts of Wrightsville in York County, Pennsylvania. A bird’s eye view of the site facing east reveals the house, barn and farm fields, as well as U.S. Route 30 and the bridge connecting Wrightsville with Columbia on the far bank of the Susquehanna River.

Photo by Susquehanna National Heritage Area.

In this carefully framed shot, a sliver of grey roof only hints at what exists beyond the bottom edge of the photo… a complex of industrial warehouses that was slated to expand and replace the neighboring Mifflin House and its historical significance in 2017.

Spinning the camera 180 degrees to face west reveals a completely different view of Mifflin House, with industrial warehouses directly adjacent to the property. Photo by Susquehanna National Heritage Area.

When plans were made public to demolish the Mifflin House and other buildings on the farm property to build another 400,000 ft3 warehouse, a small but vocal group of local preservationists, conservationists, and history buffs got together and raised their voices to protest this development. They contested that the site slated for demolition was not just an old home, but one with deep ties to the history of the region and nation as an important stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s. The Underground Railroad was a network of routes, safe houses and supporters that aided people escaping slavery, kept secret to protect both the formerly enslaved people and those assisting them along the way.

In 2019, Preservation Pennsylvania and the Susquehanna National Heritage Area (SNHA) reached out to The Conservation Fund for assistance in preserving this site. After three years of working collaboratively with the owner and developer, the Fund stepped in to purchase the property in May 2022, allowing more time for our partners to secure funding before transferring it to SNHA for permanent protection and adaptive use.

There is so much history associated with this site. Mifflin House served as a safe haven for freedom seekers passing through central Pennsylvania. The Susquehanna River was a natural barrier to migration north and east, and at the time the bridge connecting Wrightsville to Columbia in Lancaster County was the only crossing between Fort Deposit, Maryland to the south and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to the north. With the assistance of local residents like the Mifflin family and their fellow Quakers, those escaping slavery found a safe place to rest and cross the river.

The Mifflin House past (left; photo courtesy York County History Center) and present (right; photo by Randolph Harris). The dwelling is in very good condition and its historic integrity is intact.

Randolph Harris, a consulting historian employed by LancasterHistory, Lancaster County’s Historical Society, has been working along with others to save this property for several years.

“The efforts to preserve the Mifflin House gathered together one of the broadest coalitions of citizens I have witnessed in over 30 years of community advocacy for the retention and re-use of historic properties,” Harris said. “Over the course of two-plus years, after a small local preservation group, the Krietz Creek Valley Preservation Society, first rang the alarm of a pending loss of this historic site, the cause grew around the region, state and now on the national level. There is a special joy when people of various backgrounds and interests can come together, share information and form the kind of coalition we see today. Everyone involved can celebrate this positive outcome when we find common ground to learn about our past and chart a more enlightened future.”

Betty Hurdle, Secretary for the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania (on left), is joined by York County community historians bringing awareness to the cause in 2017. Photo by Randolph Harris.

Harris explained that the deep resonance to save this site is based on a few key factors. This property is associated with many notable persons and important events in local, state, and national history, such as the Westward expansion of the country, the American Revolution, Underground Railroad and Civil War. Frankly, he finds that many people are shocked when they realize that a property with this level of importance in American history, and eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, can be subject to demolition.

Photo by Randolph Harris.

As part of his work, Harris is expanding the Underground Railroad heritage tours he has been conducting for the last few years. These tours often begin intentionally at the farm lane that leads to the Mifflin House as it stands today alongside busy U.S. Route 30, the nation’s first transcontinental highway.

“There is a sweet confluence of cultural heritage, raw history and a wide variety of opportunities that can be told at the Mifflin House and farm and its strategic location.” Harris said. “It is impactful to consider its connection to the Underground Railroad—a civil rights movement that is literally about movement of people to freedom and opportunity—in a location next to this famous highway that is so much about the nation’s mass movement of people and goods.”

The Mifflins worked with a trusted ferryman named Robert Loney, who was a skilled Black boatsman from Columbia and their primary agent in this dangerous and illegal work. Born on a plantation in Virginia, Loney ferried people across the river, sometime at night, using a rowboat or raft in the cover of darkness, because slave catchers were often watching the bridge.

Through his work, Mr. Harris has connected with many people who share his passion for the history of the region. For example, Kathleen Anderson, who is herself a descendant of the Loney family (her great-grandmother was Cecelia Loney Morris) and who serves as Vice President of the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania (AAHSSCPA), has been involved in the efforts to preserve Mifflin House.

“Members of the Blessing family invited me and some other members of the AAHSSCPA to see the inside of the house a few years ago. I also walked from the house down the field toward the river. I was really thrilled the first time I saw the aerial view of the area around the house down to the river. I could just imagine how Robert Loney walked through those fields in the darkness taking people to his boat,” said Mrs. Anderson. “I am very thankful for all of the efforts being made to save the historic farmhouse, other buildings and the land around them. It wouldn’t have been quite the same if warehouses were between the house and the river instead of the open land; they would have blocked my mind’s image of how people could have walked from the house through the fields and down to the river.”

Left: Julia Chain, Don Blessing, Leroy Hopkins and Kathleen Anderson during a visit in 2018. Right: Kathleen Anderson walking in the surrounding fields. Photos by Randolph Harris.

The Susquehanna National Heritage Area has put together a plan for the property that reimagines the site as a regional heritage center, nature preserve and visitor attraction. Their vision includes a heritage trail that would connect to an existing river park and allow visitors to trace the steps that freedom seekers took on the Underground Railroad as they left York County and crossed the Susquehanna River into Lancaster County. It includes plans to stabilize the Mifflin House to tell the story of the role the house and family played. The modern barn complex would be transformed into the Susquehanna Discovery Center, housing a visitors’ center, exhibits and event space.

This is more than just an open-space project—the Mifflin House, property and story need to be permanently protected to continue uplifting the story of the Underground Railroad. The Conservation Fund is excited to work on this project that both honors the preservation of the past and combines that with development of the future. Blending these concepts together is what is going to make this project work.

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A Piece of the Underground Railroad’s Story Forever Told

Written by

Kyle Shenk

Kyle Shenk serves as The Conservation Fund’s Northeast Regional Director, overseeing the Fund’s work in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. He also serves as our Pennsylvania State Director, focusing on high priority conservation acquisitions and mitigation fund management. A native of Pennsylvania, Kyle spearheads conservation projects at multiple scales, from local parks and greenways to landscape level ecosystem protection.