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April 16, 1951 - Wellsville Daily Reporter -- Researched & Submitted by Mary Rhodes

By Roy A Peck (Reporter Correspondent)

Belmont, April 16 – The funeral here Saturday of Melvin H. Sortore, 69, from his farm home two miles south of Belmont recalled to some older residents historic happenings at his farm in pre Civil War days, when it was a station on the Underground Railroad, which aided slaves in escaping from the South.

The humanitarian law of liberty stood above the man made fugitive slave law of 1850 in the serious mind of William Sortore, abolitionist, grandfather of Melvin.  William Sortore is by no means forgotten though 80 years have passed since his body was laid to rest in Windus Cemetery in a grave but one mile from the Underground Railroad Station.

William Sortore, a Belmont farmer of considerable means was one of the 3,000 or more undercover operators who took the fleeing Negroes into their homes, fed and clothed them if necessary, hid them by day and took them at the dead of night nearer the Canadian haven.

Descendants of this fearless friend of the escaping Negroes recall interesting bits about the days when the fleeing colored folks were in their ancestor’s care.

The rigorous law in force and the searching slave owners who might be met on a main road at any hour compelled utmost secrecy.  On that account no written records were kept of the number of times slaves were helped.  In fact, the zealous abolitionist hid his movements even from his own children.  The children went  to the barn one morning and found the horses muddy and the wagon or sleigh spattered and wet as though just driven.  Their questions as to where the team had been went unanswered.

Some stories have come down to the present of a false bottom in a crockery crate on runners where slaves were secreted until driven across the Niagara River into Canada.  A wagon bottom was similarly equipped and when feed went to a mill for grinding it covered the fleeing negroes.  Or they were sometimes hidden in hay on a wagon.  Who brought the fugitives to the hospitable Sortore home or where from, or just where they were usually taken seems to be lost in the secrecy of that time.  Some might have found their way singly or in pairs to the Sortore door by night and departed alone when the shades of the next evening fell.

Perhaps some were taken to a Short Tract (Norton Hill) station described to ex supervisor Charles E Whitcomb of Belvidere by his father, the late S. Hale Whitcomb.  He told of occasionally seeing a colored man slip from tree to tree among the heavily wooded tracts that covered much of Allegany County up to the 1850’s when fugitive slave running was most prevalent.

Two stone gate posts will stand at the Sortore home never outside the family of Wendell, a son of Melvin, who operates the farm at the present time.  The farms pioneer settler was Elisha Sortore, who died in 1818, father of William.  One of these stone posts bears the name “William Sortore, 1837”.

Not far from the red frame two story home of the abolitionist, set well back from a not too much traveled road, ran a small stream.  Beside it was a side road. Descendants tell of a mysterious underground passage in its mouth screened with trees and brush that led from the creek back to either the cellar or the woodshed of the friendly home.  The hounded slaves could thus reach the shelter of their benefactor’s roof without being observed from the road it faced.  When night came, they would then be helped on the journey to safety.

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