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Selma Avenue house has direct connection to Underground Railroad

By Laura Hayes

Posted 8/7/19

Inside John Ziats’ home on Selma Avenue are pieces of history, remnants of a row of gable pointed homes called the Five Points, which is a documented stop on the Underground Railroad.

His …

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Selma Avenue house has direct connection to Underground Railroad


Inside John Ziats’ home on Selma Avenue are pieces of history, remnants of a row of gable pointed homes called the Five Points, which is a documented stop on the Underground Railroad.

His home was built by his grandfather in 1937, using materials salvaged from the Five Points.

Growing up, did he know about the historic connection to his grandfather’s house?

“No. Absolutely not. I don’t think they really knew,” Ziats said.

The Five Points was a row of five gable pointed homes on the southwestern corner of Catherine and Main Streets.

Ziats’ talk about his home was hosted by the Lower Swatara Township Historic Preservation Society at the township fire hall July 18 as part of a series of discussions. The next speaker will be Heidi Abbey Moyer, archivist and humanities reference librarian and coordinator of archives and special collections at Penn State Harrisburg, who will talk about the history of the university at 6 p.m. Sept. 17.

Ziats first learned about his home’s historic connection during Middletown Area Middle School’s local history day in 1976. Students would walk around historic sites in town such as St. Peter’s Kierch and the Middletown Public Library. As part of the local history day, there was an oral history with some of the African-American patriarchs in Middletown. Afterward they went to the site of the Five Points, which used to stand at the corner of Catherine and Main streets.

“I was totally ecstatic, spellbound. I hadn’t heard anybody talk about the [Five Points] since my grandfather did,” Ziats said.

His grandfather had told him that the materials from his home came from the Five Points. Both he and his sister are interested in local history, and when he heard about the connection he wanted to learn more and more.

“I’m not so sure [my grandfather] knew about the connection to the Underground Railroad, but I like to kind of think that he was way ahead of his time when it came to recycling. In some ways, he was very good for the environment, and now he’s very good for society in allowing me to share all of this information with you folks because had it not been for me doing that presentation at the museum for local history day, I would’ve never got the connection,” Ziats said.

In 1976, Virginia Schaeffer did a series of interviews to try to gather the history of African-Americans in Middletown. In 2010, Schaeffer’s manuscript was published in the Middletown Fair program.

According to Schaeffer’s history, in March 1780, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania passed an act for the gradual abolition of slavery that all slave children born after that date had to be registered and they were emancipated after they turned 28.

A 1840 census indicated that there were five slaves living in Middletown, she wrote.

“Middletown definitely had an Underground Railroad stop,” Schaeffer wrote, which was a way of transporting slaves both before and after the Civil War from below the Mason-Dixon line to freedom.

There were stops in Chambersburg, Harrisburg, York and Columbia, and Middletown’s stop was at the Five Points.

Schaeffer wrote that the Fisher and Crow families were instrumental in the “conduction and supervision” of the station.

The Rev. Julius Reeves, Raymond Bowman and Hattie Williams provided Schaeffer information. Williams told Schaeffer that her great-great-grandparents came to Middletown by the stop at the Five Points, traveling by night and hiding during the day. Groups coming to the Five Points came through Chambersburg, and some of the members of the “first families” lived at the Five Points.

Ziats suspects that Underground Railroad passengers may have hid in the basements.

Ziats’ grandfather, Frank J. Ziats, built the house in 1937. His grandfather was sold the side of a house for $1,000 and had to remove it in seven days. He hauled a flatbed with mules down to the site and piled everything onto the flatbed.

The home has five bedrooms. The clapboards are original cedar, and so are the window sashes and trim around the house, although it’s been painted. His grandfather also took the doors and transom windows.

Growing up, Ziats never realized that some of the baseboards didn’t line up exactly

“You realize, gee, my grandfather must have been quite clever to put that all together that you don’t notice it when you walk into the room,” Ziats said.

Ziats applied and received a plaque from the Middletown Historical Restoration Commission to display on his home.

“Since all the material was salvaged from the borough, and it had that connection with the Underground Railroad, I just thought I would like to put the plaque on the house to just honor my grandfather’s efforts,” he said.

Ziats said he believes there may have been one other Underground Railroad station in Middletown — the site of the current sewage treatment plant. There used to be a house there — “huge, a big brick monstrosity,” as Ziats described it — that used to be a canal hotel, though it was later torn down.

The last person who lived there told him that there was a brick archway behind the stove in the kitchen.

“It was so close to the river. So, if people were coming by boats or whatever up through the river there, obviously they could’ve went up through the marshes there and hid in that house,” Ziats said.

In 2014, a chamber was discovered underneath a condemned home on Ann Street, which some believed may have been used as part of the Underground Railroad.

“That was already documented that that was a cold cellar or something where they used to keep beverages and root vegetables and stuff, and it really had no connection to the Underground Railroad,” Ziats said.