Nestled in the heart of southcentral Pennsylvania’s hallowed battleground lies a hidden gem that was once a part of the Gettysburg Underground Railroad.
McAllister’s Mill, a stone structure on the banks of Rock Creek, served as a vital link in a chain of safe houses that provided refuge, shelter, and hope to those who dared to dream of a life beyond enslavement.
According historians, the mill—now in ruins—sheltered hundreds of slaves, especially between 1850-1858.
Read on to discover how the story of this Gettysburg Underground Railroad stop is being kept alive even though the mill no longer stands.
NOTE: The painting above, called “McAllister’s Mill – A Stop On The Underground Railroad, 1854,” by Bradley Schmehl, shows a young Theodore McAllister leading freedom seekers to refuge in the cog pit of the mill.
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Table of Contents
McAllister’s Mill History
McAllister’s Mill was built in the 1760s, with each stone being set by hand. It was owned by relatives of James Gettys (the founder of Gettysburg), until it was eventually purchased by James McAllister in 1827.
James McAllister had a fervent dislike of slavery, which prompted him to organize a meeting at his mill with a group of like-minded local citizens.
This group would eventually become the very active Adams County Anti-Slavery Society, with McAllister serving as its president.
The Role Of The Underground Railroad In Gettysburg
Due to its proximity to slave-holding Maryland, Gettysburg was not a safe place for escaping slaves, even though it was above the Mason-Dixon line.
The reason for the danger was that many residents with family and business ties to Maryland would report escaped slaves to slave catchers staying in the area.
As a result, men like James McAllister, Joel Wierman and William Wright, became station masters on an “Underground Railroad” in Gettysburg to help point the freedom seekers to a safe place.
Testimony of Theodore McAllister (son of James McAllister)
Civil War Veteran and Representative in the Pennsylvania Legislature
“This old mill sheltered many fugitive slaves… I was during this time, from 8 to 16 years of age. And many of these fugitives were neither seen nor heard of by any other member of our large family except myself until they were far on their way to Canada. But there were never any questions asked if quantities of rations disappeared from the cellar and pantry. And I noticed old clothing was placed very convenient to my hand in the garret of the old home.”
Thanks to those involved in the Gettysburg Underground Railroad, freedom seekers would be guided north around the town center, and told to follow creeks and secondary roads.
They had to try to avoid capture by bounty hunters who patrolled this area close to the Maryland border, and try to make it to their next destination, which would be the homes and farms of other Abolitionists and Gettysburg Underground Railroad activists.
“Crouched under the lower floor and in the cog pit of that old mill I listened to some horrible tales of cruelty told by those young, mostly yellow men, some of them with features of the white race, as they rested their weary legs and filled themselves up in preparation for another race for the bleak north.” – Theodore McAllister
The Underground Railroad Network Around Gettysburg
Various sources document an extensive network of what is called an Underground Railroad in southeastern Pennsylvania from the late 18th century until the early 1860s.
While the McAllister’s were members of the Covenanter branch of Presbyterians, regional support for the Underground Railroad was most often rendered by both free African Americans and members of the Society of Friends—Quakers.
The Society of Friends in Adams and surrounding Pennsylvania counties had connections in neighboring counties and southern states, creating a network that could work together for common causes, such as anti-slavery activism.
The Gettysburg area became an especially active area of the Underground Railroad.
Looking For A Tour Of Gettysburg? I recommend this 2-hour Guided Bus Tour with a Licensed Guide.
Gettysburg Underground Railroad Routes
Since Adams County is located immediately adjacent to the Mason-Dixon Line, it became the point of origin for two major routes of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, according to the book, The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania.
The Central Route: This route sent the freedom seekers on a northerly path to Carlisle in Cumberland County, and to Harrisburg in Dauphin County. From here, freedom seekers could travel east to Philadelphia or continue north to New York State and onto Canada.
The Southeastern Corridor: This route guided the runaways mainly out of Adams County to the east into the counties of York, Lancaster, Chester and Philadelphia.
McAllister’s Mill During The Civil War
James McAllister and his wife raised 12 children in the house that sat near the mill. Strong in their faith, they both had a very unfavorable view of slavery and passed that principle onto their kids.
Of course, seeing runaway slaves face to face and hearing their horrific tales had a profound impact on the McAllister boys, as well, and it eventually motivated them to take up arms.
Five of McAllister’s sons enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War.
“Is it any wonder that I grew up to young manhood hating slavery with a mortal hatred?”
– Theodore McAllister
Being part of the Underground Railroad in Gettysburg isn’t the only historic activity that took place on McAllister’s property. It also became part of the fighting during the Battle of Gettysburg, and was the site of the first soldier killed in the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Death Of A Soldier At McAllister’s Mill
On June 26, just days before large-scale fighting broke out in Gettysburg, an unlucky Union scout happened upon a group of Confederate soldiers and was shot on the McAllisters’ property.
Hearing the commotion, James hitched up his wagon and headed to the scene to discover George Washington Sandoe, a local man, mortally wounded.
Not one to back down, McAllister reprimanded the Southerners for shooting the poor boy, since he had posed no direct threat to them. The aging abolitionist then took Sandoe back to his home to bury him.
Sandoe became the first Civil War soldier killed in Pennsylvania, leaving a young bride as a widow and foreshadowing the many tragedies that would unfold over the next few days.
A monument stands along the Baltimore Pike as a tribute to Sandoe.
The monument reads:
Near this spot on June 26th 1863 fell Private George W. Sandoe
An advance scout of A Company of Volunteer Cavalry, afterwards Co. B, 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry
THE FIRST UNION SOLDIER KILLED AT GETTYSBURG
James McAllister would eventually lose his own son in the war to end slavery. James Alexander McAllister was killed at the Battle of Vicksburg, about the same time that the Battle of Gettysburg was raging around the McAllister Mill.
Amazingly, James McAllister lived to see the passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in America on Dec. 18, 1865.
Is This Gettysburg Underground Railroad Stop Haunted?
Many people wonder if the McAllister Mill Underground Railroad site in Gettysburg is haunted.
Dean Shultz, a Gettysburg engineer and preservationist whose family has owned the land directly adjacent to the mill since 1847, said in a printed article that he remembers the ghost tales his former neighbors used to tell.
He said the neighbors could still hear the hounds outside, howling for the slaves, and see the lights from the hunters.
You can imagine the impression that story had on a young boy!
There have been no recent stories about hauntings at this historic Underground Railroad site in Gettysburg, and since it is now located on private property, there is no way to find out.
The Gettysburg Underground Railroad Tour
The McAllister grist mill was located east of Baltimore Pike at Rock Creek, about 1.85 miles south of the Borough of Gettysburg and just 6 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
While the mill itself no longer stands, the original raceway that guided the water from the dam to turn the mill wheel is quite easy to see. (More than 260 years later)!
The non-profit Historic Gettysburg Adams County (HGAC) now conducts tours of the site every Saturday at 11 a.m. from May through August.
Looking for a Gettysburg Bed and Breakfast?
Tours leave from the historical marker at the south end of the former Mulligan MacDuffer Adventure Golf parking lot at 1360 Baltimore Pike in Gettysburg, which is at the intersection of the Baltimore Pike and the McAllister Mill Road.
It is not necessary to make a reservation for the tour, and a guide will give a tour regardless of the weather.
The tour follows the historic road trace to the mill and Rock Creek and then returns to the Baltimore Pike with stops along the way at the old mill pond and at the site of the McAllister’s house.
The total distance covered is just over one-half mile and the tour lasts one hour.
Suggested donations for the tour are $5 for students and $10 for adults, and these donations are tax deductible. The tour is on a privately owned part of the battlefield and natural footpaths are used, so good footwear is recommended.
Related Story: This Old Mill in Virginia is open for tours and is still in operation.
Everyone who comes on the tour receives an NPS Underground Railroad brochure in addition to a souvenir brochure for the McAllister’s Mill Site. This brochure is illustrated with a map, photographs and the art of historical artist Bradley Schmehl.
Junior Ranger booklets and badges are available for students who participate in the tour.
HGAC nominated the Gettysburg Underground Railroad landmark for the federal Underground Railroad program, and in 2011, it became the first site in Gettysburg ever to receive the formal recognition.
The National Park Service National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (UGRR NTF) is a nationwide collection of sites that have a verifiable association to the Underground Railroad.
For more information on the McAllister Mill Gettysburg Underground Railroad tour, you can call 717- 659-8827. HGAS also gives tours of the historic Spangler Farm.
FAQs About The Gettysburg Underground Railroad
Why Was The Underground Railroad Important?
The network of abolitionists, Quakers and activists that became known as the “Underground Railroad” helped move former slaves to freedom and kept them hidden when slave catchers were close.
Books On The Gettysburg Area Underground Railroad
I was excited to find that a number of books have been written on the topic of the Underground Railroad around Gettysburg and throughout the mid-Atlantic region.
Here are a few of the titles I found:
Yellow Hill: Reconstructing the Past of this Lost Community (near Gettysburg)
The Underground Railroad: A Captivating Guide to the Network of Routes, Places, and People in the United States That Helped Free African Americans during the Nineteenth Century
You can also check out the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom
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Wrap-Up Of The Gettysburg Underground Railroad Stop
Since McAllister’s Mill was the first site in Adams County that runaway slaves saw on their flight to freedom, it’s amazing to be able to visit and take in the scope of this Gettysburg Underground Railroad landmark.
From its beginnings as a local grist mill to its transformation into a critical hub of the Underground Railroad, this historic site whispers tales of courage, sacrifice and the indomitable human spirit.
McAllister’s Mill is one of those historical sites in Gettysburg that few get to see, but if you’re visiting Gettysburg on a Saturday during the summer, I highly recommend this tour.
Of course, you probably already know that Gettysburg is considered one of America’s most haunted towns, but you may not know that there are many free things to do that will help keep some money in your pocket.
If you want to find out where the locals go, where to park, eat and stay during your trip, pick up a copy of the Gettysburg Handbook.