Montclair Historians Make First Public Visit to Bloomfield Restaurant’s Underground Railroad Tunnel

While diners at the Bloomfield Steak and Seafood House chow down on some prime rib or mahi mahi, very little know that just a few feet below their seats in the basement, are the remnants of a safe house tunnel that was used by fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Built in 1676, now the Bloomfield Steak and Seafood House, was once the David Homestead – one of the oldest six pre-Revolutionary War homes in the town of Bloomfield. In the basement cellar, was a tunnel that led to the foot of the southeastern ridge of the Watchung Mountains, also known as Orange Mountain, allowing women and children to escape the British. A century later, that tunnel became part of the Underground Railroad, according to Montclair architect, historian and land use expert Frank Godlewski.

Davis Homestead, on Franklin Avenue, in Bloomfield (currently the Bloomfield Steak House).

For the first time, that tunnel was recently opened to the historian community, with Godlewski and Janice Cross-Gilyard, President of the AAHGS-NJ Chapter, as its visitors. “Our conventional academic history really doesn’t convey the trauma, the tragedy, or the freedom and the elation,” said Godlweski. “So that’s really what you feel when you go down there and you see the opening of this tunnel, you just feel the synergy. Wow. This is so important, it’s so deep. It’s so meaningful.” Their visit was televised on “Good Day New York.”

For Cross-Gilyard, visiting the tunnel was a very emotional experience. “I’ve been researching my family history for about 27 years – I traced my family back to 1720, and I do have ancestors who were enslaved,” Cross-Gilyard said. “So initially [entering the tunnel] was a very solemn feeling for me, very emotional.” At first, Cross-Gilyard was apprehensive about taking photos in the sacred space, but soon realized it was OK to smile and rejoice since “I’m here because my ancestors survived and escaped,” she said.

An 1890s map of Bloomfield, showing the David Homestead and the Morris Canal.

With much of Montclair and Bloomfield’s role in the Underground Railroad – a network of secret routes and safe houses designated to allow fugitive slaves travel North to freedom – undocumented, Godlewski and Cross-Gilyard are working up a report to have this history officially recognized by the state.

According to Godlewski and Cross-Gilyard’s research, the Montclair area was home to about a dozen safe houses for fugitive slaves. There is evidence of a series of tunnels that ran from west to east, from under Crane’s Gap at the top of Bloomfield Avenue. Additionally, traces of a tunnel exist from the Annin Flag Factory site in Verona to Upper Mountain Avenue, behind the James Howe House (The Freed Slave House where there is also a large underground cistern), the Doubleday Farmhouse (now the Carriage House of Evergreens), the Koefful House (demolished), the Stagecoach House at Bloomfield Avenue and Waldon Place and also at 8 South Mountain Avenue. This network of tunnels is adjacent to the Revolutionary War Tunnel that led from the Crane Homestead (demolished, on Claremont Ave and Valley Road), that ran down Bloomfield to the Davis Homestead, which was on the Morris Canal (now the Bloomfield Steak and Seafood House). The Morris Canal was a means to travel to Newark and Jersey City, which were the next points on the Underground Railroad.

Although New Jersey was above the Mason Dixon Line, which separated the slave states from the “free states,” slavery wasn’t actually abolished in New Jersey until 1865. Moreover, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which mandated that all captured escaped slaves be returned to their masters or face severe punishment, meant that most of the Underground Railroad network in the Montclair area went undocumented. Godlewski and Cross-Gilyard hope to be the driving force that cements this important piece of New Jersey history into official records.

Godlewski’s involvement in this initiative stems from his childhood mentor Dr. Evelyn (Boyden) Darrell, who imparted African-American history education on him from a young age. Godlewski grew up watching his mother, alongside Darrell, fighting for Civil Rights. “So, I feel like I have a legacy… It’s a privilege to have this legacy about African-American history. That’s why I’m so interested in it,” he said. “And also, to continue my family’s tradition of [fighting for] Civil Rights, and also just for my own sense of social and educational obligation, is why I do this research.”

For a deeper dive in Godlewski’s upbringing and surveying of the Montclair Underground Railroad, listen to his hour-long interview on the “Your History Your Story” podcast with James Gardner.

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