CUMBERLAND, Md. (AP) — Two brave men and countless parishioners at a western Maryland church are believed to have saved thousands of slaves' lives. The lives were saved as the church served as a hub for the Underground Railroad.

The Emmanuel Parish of the Episcopal Church in Cumberland sits at one of the highest points of Cumberland, Maryland, but it's actually what's underneath that's most important -- several, well-preserved tunnels used in the Underground Railroad.

"Particularly, I think for me as a woman to be in a place where social justice has been at the very heart of this parish and actually is embedded in the very structure of the parish," the Rev. Martha Macgill said.

Macgill said she was drawn to the parish because of its rich history. Visitors can still see on the walls where a special section once stood just for slaves.

The tunnels date back to the 1750s and the French and Indian War.

Then-Col. George Washington and other soldiers dug them out as an escape route from the battlefield to nearby Fort Cumberland.

It was almost 100 years later, in 1849, when the cornerstone of the church was laid. At that time, the Rev. David Hillhouse Buel, who was already active in the Underground Railroad in Maryland, felt the tunnels underneath the church would be a perfect stop on the way to freedom.

"(He) supervised the building of the church, recognized the utility of the tunnels under the church as a potential stop on the Underground Railroad," Ron Growden said.

Growden is the chief docent of the church. He said Buel teamed up with Samuel Denson, who came to Cumberland as an escaped slave from Mississippi, and became the church's sexton. He played a crucial part in the success of the Underground Railroad in western Maryland.

"Those slaves who we're going north by way of the Cumberland Route were told to go to Shantytown, which was an area of lawlessness," Growden said.

Growden explained how the system worked. After a stay in Shantytown, which was considered safe for escaped slaves, they would then listen for an unusual pattern in the church bell. That was the all clear for the escaped slaves to go to the watergate of the church where they were met by Buel and Denson.

Once through the gate, the escape slaves would make their way down a tight hallway as the beginning of the underground railroad right now were underneath the church is escape slaves could wait here a matter of hours days or weeks before making their way onto Pennsylvania.

From there it was a 200-yard tunnel walk to the rectory, and from there a 4-mile hike to freedom through the woods.

There's no way to know just how many escaped slaves were saved as records were not kept, but there's no doubt about it that Buel and Denson risked life and limb so others could be free.

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Information from: WBAL-TV, http://www.wbaltv.com