Colin Cattell helped a Riverton couple authenticate their property as a safe house on the Underground Railroad
When Palmyra High School senior Colin Cattell knocked on his neighbors’ door offering snow shoveling services in 2015, he hardly anticipated the simple gesture would result in the discovery of Riverton’s ties to the Underground Railroad. Even less foreseeable was his eventual candidacy for the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, but after more than a year of research, it only seemed appropriate to Mary Louise and Ken Smith, the aforementioned neighbors and the owners of the home where Cattell’s foray into local history began.
Mary Louise, who grew up in Riverton and later returned to purchase the waterfront property on Bank Avenue that captivated her as a child, wanted to prove once and for all the town’s wealthy Quaker founders were doing more than just spending leisurely summers along the Delaware River. After extensive digging through deeds, letters, lineages and other documents, Cattell’s role in the Smiths’ project has not only garnered him eligibility for the prestigious prize, but in part explains why Riverton and Palmyra were racially integrated long before the civil rights movement or Brown v. Board of Education.
The Smiths’ home, Cattell said, was once owned by the Clothiers and later the Ogdens, whom Cattell’s research uncovered were staunch abolitionists and most likely used their position along the river to help fugitive slaves escape to freedom in Philadelphia and New York in the mid-1800s. The object of Mary Louise’s retirement, she said, was to gather enough evidence to authenticate this probable truth about Riverton’s origins via a curator’s inspection, but she and Ken couldn’t do it alone. They knew Cattell, an honors student with a passion for history and family dating back to Riverton’s founding, was the perfect person to lend a hand.
“He’s a very industrious young man, and quite talented,” Ken said. Mary Louise added Cattell’s poise and intelligence endeared them to the student right away.
Cattell, the youngest board member of the Riverton Historical Society, found connections to the abolitionist movements at two more homes along the river as well as a map that identified the Smiths’ home as the “Fish House.” In 2016, curators from Swarthmore College, where the Clothiers happened to have strong ties, used the evidence to assess the Smiths’ property and confirmed it as a 4.5 out of five on the scale used to determine whether a location was used to hide slaves.
“A five would be given if someone wrote it in a diary or a letter somewhere, but since the Underground Railroad was illegal, no one would have wanted to make their involvement discoverable,” Cattell said. “I have a theory that there may have been an alternate reason to found Riverton. It was secluded, it was far away from Philadelphia but not too far, they had the train running through the Camden-Amboy Railroad and they built a ferry port, which is now the Riverton Yacht Club.”
For Cattell, his submission to the Princeton Prize in Race Relations is not really about the potential personal benefit or recognition. There is little written information about his hometown’s position in abolitionist history, and he thinks it’s about time Riverton be put on the map of key players.
“Because this area was founded by Quakers, that mentality of treating everyone equally regardless of their skin color, to judge based on character and the merit of a person’s work, I believe was passed down,” Cattell said. “That tenet is present in halls of Riverton’s schools, where you can see graduating classes as far back as the late 1800s were integrated.”