Frederick Douglass was born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and was given the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Frederick Douglass was born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and was given the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. At an early age, he learned to read and write, and escaped to freedom in the North, changing his name to Douglass to avoid recapture. Eventually he settled in Rochester, New York, and was active in the abolitionist cause. He was a leader of Rochester’s Underground Railroad movement and became the editor and publisher of the North Star, an abolitionist newspaper. After the Civil War, Douglass came to Washington, DC, and served as the marshal of the District of Columbia and was appointed recorder of deeds for the city. In 1889, President Harrison appointed him minister-resident and consul general of the Republic of Haiti and charge d’affaires for the Dominican Republic. During all of this activity, Douglass remained an outspoken advocate for the rights of African Americans. Though not directly associated with Douglass’ involvement in the Underground Railroad, this National Historic Site helps us to better understand the life of the man who is recognized as “the father of the civil rights movement.”
In 1844 a road, Buell Avenue, was constructed north from the west side of the present Driving Park bridge to river level and Alexander Kelsey established a landing there. A warehouse and grain elevator were built and a regularly scheduled horse-drawn omnibus service was established to downtown Rochester. In the 1840’s you could take a nonstop boat to Detroit from Kelsey’s Landing. It was also a departure point for slaves escaping to Canada on the Underground Railway. For a few years it was Rochester’s main port but shipping on the Genesee shifted to Charlotte when a railroad was built to it in the 1850’s. Buell Avenue was built along the steep and unstable walls of the gorge and only the initial portion remains today. From lowerfalls.org.
Situated at the foot of the Lower Falls on the Genesee River, Kelsey’s Landing was the southernmost navigable point of the fast flowing northbound river. For decades, Kelsey’s’ Landing served as the main shipping port for the City of Rochester; the advent of the railroads, however, soon made the larger and more accessible lakeside Charlotte Rochester’s port-of-preference. Goods were not, however, the only items to depart from Kelsey’s Landing. As the Lake Ontario port closest to Rochester, Kelsey’s Landing was a busy point of departure on the Underground Railroad. Hundreds of freedom seekers made their way down the gorge to the water’s edge to board ships to slave-free Canada. In this effort, they were invariably aided by Rochester’s most famous Underground Railroad conductor, Frederick Douglass. Douglass too, however, had occasion to use the port to flee. In the wake of John Brown’s failed raid at Harper’s Ferry, federal authorities sought out all who had helped the radical abolitionist. Douglass had long embraced Brown as a friend and ally. Brown had stayed in his house on Alexander Street for weeks in the months leading up to the raid; further, the night before the raid Douglass and a friend had met Brown in West Virginia. Douglass tried to dissuade Brown; Brown tried to encourage him to come along. Neither was successful though Douglass’s companion, Rochester resident and fugitive from slavery, Shields Green, was sufficiently moved to join Brown in what was an obviously suicidal attack on a federal arsenal. With federal marshals closing in on him in Rochester, Douglass fled to Kelsey’s Landing and boarded a boat to Canada and eventually to the United Kingdom. Kelsey’s Landing was recently recognized as an Underground Railroad point-of-departure by being listed on the National Park Services National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.