Underground railroad went through NJ restaurant

In the basement of the Bloomfield Steak and Seafood House in Bloomfield, NJ there is something truly remarkable.

Deep in the cellar, it is a link to the roots of American history.

"We have our 'underground railroad,'" said Nicole Farrell. Her family bought the restaurant in Essex County back in 2008.

The building was built back in 1676 and was known as the old Joseph Davis House. The basement was connected to a tunnel that was originally used to transport women and children during the Revolutionary War to escape British soldiers.

Centuries later it was used again as a means of escape and safety for enslaved people seeking freedom as part of the 'Underground railroad."

"We known that this was a safe space for people to come to escape and get away from oppression on all different levels," Farrell said.

"The 'underground railroad' and that movement, people that focused on other people (to)be free, helping enslaved people be free. It's important and that story isn't told and it needs to be told," said Janice Cross-Gilyard. She's the president of the African American Historical and Genealogical Society of New Jersey.

Janice and historian and architect Frank Gerard Godlewski are on a mission to publicize these stories and make sure the locations associated with them remain protected.

"If you look at the local history, you'll be amazed at what you might find," Janice said.

"A lot of information about the Underground Railroad remains undocumented," Godlewski said.

He says it had to be in order for the movement to work.

"It was to find its place in American History."

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Most people are familiar with the general story of the underground railroad. It's not an actual railway, but a route linking slave states in the south to free states up north by utilizing abolitionist homes - churches and other properties.
"These were black people, these were white people, all working together for the cause of freedom," Frank said.

Less well known in this story: New Jersey was often a final stop on the trek toward freedom. But it was a dangerous one as the Garden State was the last northern state to abolish slavery.

Frank says North Jersey played a particularly important role, especially the Montclair-Bloomfield area.

In Montclair, the prominent Crane Family gifted property to the first freed slave in the area, James Howe.

His historic home on Claremont Avenue still exists as well.

Frank says an old Toll Booth near the top of Bloomfield Avenue near the border of Verona was often patrolled by bounty hunters looking to capture people on the run.

If enslaved people could make it to the Howe house - they found refuge and safety and that Revolutionary War age tunnel nearby.

It ran underground for more than a mile all the way to the Bloomfield Steakhouse more than 1 mile away.

'From here you'd go to the Morris Canal and that was another part of the Freedom Route that would take you to Newark, Jersey City, and once you crossed the Hudson you were free," Frank says.

He and Janice are preparing a special report to submit to the NJ Department of Environmental protection for better recognition of stories like this.

"I refer to it as hidden history in your own backyard," Janice says.