In L. Merion, an inn's link to hiding slaves

The William Penn Inn in Lower Marion, seen here in 2010, may have harbored runaway slaves.
The William Penn Inn in Lower Marion, seen here in 2010, may have harbored runaway slaves. (Lower Merion Historical Society)
Posted: July 30, 2014

Neighbors opposing the proposed demolition of the William Penn Inn in Lower Merion presented information Monday suggesting that the building might have harbored runaway slaves.

At a meeting of the township Historical Commission, a resident of the inn showed photographs of a trapdoor panel and a hiding place between the second and third floors.

Gerald A. Francis, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society, said it would be nearly impossible to prove that runaways passed through, but "it would make sense" given its location near other known safe houses.

Joseph Price, one of Lower Merion's most notable Quaker forefathers, built the inn in 1799. In his diaries, Price wrote of giving money to slaves and helping them on their way to freedom, Francis said.

William Dupertuis said that when he moved into one of the inn's apartments 15 years ago, "I was told about the understanding of it being a stop on the Underground Railroad and there were hidden panels."

Dupertuis showed photographs and described how a rope-and-pulley system hidden in the wall opened up a four- by eight-foot space in the ceiling.

Robert Wise, a historic preservation planner hired by the developer, said he had no idea about a possible slavery connection when he prepared his report. "This is news to me, today," he said.

John Rayer, the developer buying the property at Lancaster Avenue and Clover Hill Road, estimated the inn would cost $2 million to restore to historical standards. He wants to build five single-family houses on the 1.7-acre lot.

The Historical Commission unanimously recommended a 90-day delay in the demolition. The plan is scheduled to be considered by the Building and Planning Committee on Sept. 10.

NOTE: Lower Merion's William Penn Inn is not to be confused with Lower Gwynedd's William Penn Inn. The Lower Gwynedd facility is even older -- celebrating its tricentennial this year -- and still operates as a restaurant and event venue.

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