The Washington to Albany Route and Charles Torrey
Born in Massachusetts and educated at Exeter Academy and Yale, Charles Torrey was a Congregational minister who joined the abolitionist movement in the 1830s. After disagreements with the leader of abolitionism in New England, William Lloyd Garrison, Torrey and others set up what they called the New Movement, which later became the Liberty Party in the spring of 1840. In 1841, believing that the movement needed to be more active than just publishing anti-slavery tracts and speeches, Torrey moved to Washington DC to work as a reporter for abolitionist newspapers. His work as a reporter was a cover for his anti-slavery activities.
Torrey worked with Thomas Smallwood, a free black, to establish an elaborate and undercover route from Washington DC to Albany, New York, over which escaped slaves could be moved at night, staying hidden during the day, sheltered by sympathizers. It was the first fully organized Underground Railroad. Torrey and Smallwood recruited slaves to escape, with Torrey concentrating on the slaves owned by Southern members of the House and Senate and government officials in Washington. Slaves were hidden in Washington safe houses and transported out of the city in wagons rented by Torrey for the purpose.
Torrey’s operations were funded by abolitionists in New England and New York State. By the fall of 1842 Torrey’s frequent trips out of the city had drawn the attention of the Washington police and he fled to Albany, remaining in contact with Smallwood, who stayed in Washington until the spring of 1843, when he too fled to avoid arrest. By then they had freed over 400 slaves in Washington and from a branch of their operation they set up in Baltimore. Torrey was wanted by the authorities of both cities, but in the fall of 1843 both men returned to Washington and were forced to flee again when the authorities moved to arrest them.
Smallwood moved to Canada, but Torrey went to Baltimore, where he returned to his work helping slaves escape from their owners. In 1844 Torrey was arrested in Baltimore, caught while attempting to leave the city with three slaves. He was charged with theft, convicted, and sentenced to a term of six years in Maryland’s state prison. Prison conditions exacerbated the tuberculosis he had initially contracted in his youth, his health deteriorated rapidly, and efforts by friends and the churches supporting the abolitionists to obtain a release on humanitarian grounds were futile. He died in the spring of 1846.
Torrey’s network, which he established with Thomas Smallwood, freed more than 400 slaves and escorted them to safe haven in Canada and some northern communities in a little more than two years. By contrast the far more well-known Harriet Tubman led about 70 slaves to the north over eleven years. Torrey was all but forgotten after the war, largely because the history of the abolitionist movement was written after the war by those with whom Torrey had disagreed. He was the first of the more aggressive abolitionists who demanded action against slavery rather than just debating the matter over moral and political issues.