GENESEO – When Jean Ingalls and Robert McTarnaghan moved into 5 Main Street in 1958, the first thing they noticed was an ugly, torn curtain in a solitary third-floor window on the left side. But when they searched the house looking for the curtain to tear it down, they couldn’t find it.
Feeling along the wall in the closet where the window should be, suddenly a panel in the beadboard wall came loose, and a glimpse into the rich history of Geneseo as a frequent stop on the underground railroad was revealed.
“It’s a long, narrow room, you’d never even know it was there,” said Ingalls, 77. “Some rooms had closets that would open into another closet and into another room, and you could go from one closet to another and go all through the house like that.”
One day while in their front yard, Ingalls and McTarnaghan noticed what appeared to be the mother of all woodchuck holes near Main Street, and discovered a secret tunnel parallel to Court Street for smuggling escaped slaves from the Genesee River to the basement of 5 Main. The tunnel extends from what is now the intersection of Rte. 63 and Court Street to the coal bin of 5 Main, passing under what is now part of the SUNY campus and several residences.
“We shined a flashlight down in it, and you could see a ways down, deep into the dark,” said Ingalls. “We called the Town, and they came and patched it with stone. The tunnel goes to the river, where they would take escaped slaves to Rochester, and then to Lake Ontario, and then to a town in Canada. The opening is a little crawl space in the coal bin. When coal was in there you’d never even see the door.”
Ingalls said she bought the house on the county courthouse steps at auction for $6,000 in 1958, and sold it in 1996 for $300,000, having made it into 10 apartments. Current tenants in the apartment with the secret room apparently have no idea the incredible memories hidden just out of sight in the walls.
“I had no idea any of this was here,” said Yale Lee, 22, a senior Biology major at SUNY Geneseo. “I would have lived here and never have known about any of this.”
The tunnel was partially unearthed and could be clearly seen during part of the Main Street project, where the Nardozzi Paving construction crew carefully dug around the outside of the tunnel to install a 20-foot-deep manhole over an active sewer line between 8 and 4 Main Street, across the street from 5 Main.
NOTE: Family members confirmed that the house was actually sold by Ingalls in 1996, not 1966 as we were originally told.
Check out our slideshow of photos below!
PHOTO CAPTION: Cover – The entrance to part of the basement. Inset – The view of Main Street from the secret window. (Photos/Conrad Baker). Tunnel photos courtesy of Steven Priest.
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