John W. Jones is Elmira's most beloved and important historical figure because of his critical role in the success of the Underground Railroad, and for his significant contribution to record keeping for Woodlawn Cemetery.
Jones was born in 1817 on a plantation in Leesburg, Virginia as a slave to the Elzy family. On June 3, 1844, fearing he would be sold to another plantation as his owner grew old and near death, Jones and four others fled north. They survived a 300-mile trip and arrived in Elmira, New York in July of 1844.
While fleeing, Jones and his companions fought off slave hunters in Maryland and made their way into the free state of Pennsylvania. They continued heading north and took refuge in New York State in a barn on South Creek Farm owned by Nathaniel Smith. Mrs. Smith found the exhausted and hungry fugitives and cared for them until they could continue their journey. The five men reached Elmira on July 5, 1844.
Jones' adopted home of Elmira was a major stop for the Underground Railroad. Most escaped slaves who passed through came via Harrisburg and Williamsport, continuing their route to Rochester or another "station." Elmira's participation in the Underground Railroad was significant because it was the only stop between Philadelphia and St. Catherines, Ontario - the final destination for many runaway slaves. At one point in July of 1845, 17 fugitive slaves were in the Elmira area, hiding on farms and at other places.
The completion of the Northern Central Railway after 1850 further escalated Elmira's contribution to the Underground Railroad. The new railway allowed slaves to hide in baggage cars, making their journey quicker and easier.
Jones became an active agent in the Underground Railroad in 1851. By 1860, Jones aided in the escape of 860 runaways. 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 860, none were captured or returned to the South.
In 1854 the tracks from Williamsport to Elmira 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. Catherines.
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 2,963 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.
Jones received $2.50 from the government for each Confederate soldier buried. This money eventually enabled him to buy his College Avenue farm and to be rated as the wealthiest black man in this part of the state.
Jones continued to serve as sexton for First Baptist Church for 43 years. He died in December 26, 1900 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Please visit the John W. Jones Museum Web Site