WHO WAS JOHN W. JONES?
John W. Jones became an active agent in the Underground Railroad in 1851. In 1854, the Northern Central railroad tracks from Williamsport, Pennsylvania to Elmira, New York were completed. Jones made an arrangement with Northern Central employees and hid the fugitives in the 4 o'clock "Freedom Baggage Car," directly to Niagara Falls via Watkins Glen and Canandaigua. Most of Jones's "baggage" eventually landed in St. Catharines, Ontario.
By 1860, Jones aided in the escape of 800 runaway slaves. He usually received the fugitives in parties of six to ten, but there were times he found shelter for up to 30 men, women, and children a night. It is believed Jones sheltered many in his own home behind First Baptist Church. Of those 800, none were captured or returned to the South.
Jones became the sexton for Woodlawn Cemetery in 1859. One of his primary roles was to bury each deceased Confederate soldier from the Elmira Prison Camp. Of the 2,973 prisoners who Jones buried, only seven are listed as unknown. Jones kept such precise records that on December 7, 1877, the federal government declared the burial site a national cemetery.
Historically, the house was the private residence of John W. Jones and his family, changed ownership several times, and was last used as rental property that fell into disrepair. Condemned by the City of Elmira in 1997, Lucy Brown brought it to the public’s attention and with a group of concerned citizens, saved it from demolition. The building currently stands on Jones’ original farm property and the site will continue to be visually interpreted as a farm.
The museum highlights the history of African Americans who settled in New York and the activity of local abolitionists, emphasizing Elmira’s role as the only regular agency and published station on the Underground Railroad between Philadelphia and St. Catharines, Canada, and explore Mr. Jones’ community involvement and his relationship with his contemporaries.