The Film:
Behind the Scenes

The documentary drew people together for a common purpose.  Like conductors on the Underground Railroad, they shared their homes as locations, rounded up clothing for costumes, and performed heroic deeds, like supplying a famished crew with homemade biscuits and chicken noodle soup.

You could hear a pin drop at Midtown Recording Studio as eighteen people from all walks of life -- volunteer actors from the Erie Playhouse and Roadhouse Theater and a few others -- gathered to record character voices of abolitionists, former slaves and fugitives. 


Left: The same spirit was evident during a reenactment scene when students from three local high schools performed their duties aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara and proudly carried the American flag.

Right: Tyrone Buckner, a student from Cathedral Prep and a sailor in the Battle of Lake Erie, stood tall while we waited for the jet contrail to disappear behind him.


Left: Life on a nineteenth century battleship was far from easy.  Dean-Michael Brown acted above and beyond the call of duty for our segment entitled “Patriots All.”  He’s using what’s called a “holy stone” to scrub the deck after a bloody skirmish.

Right: Another student from Cathedral Prep learns the ropes.

Our scenes at the Miller Mansion coincided with the last day Betz Swanson would spend in her home of 50 years.  Frederick Douglass had taken tea in this very parlor, the same place where Cynthia Catlin Miller and the Ladies Fugitive Aid Society had made clothes for escaping slaves.  As women in period clothing filed in with their sewing kits, Betz and her extended family were transported back in time.

Producer Rich Gensheimer, cameraman Carl Mrozek and director Mike Sparks plan their next move using the NEB 70, 7" LCD monitor on location at Murphy Orchards.  Carl’s review of the monitor appears in the early December 2002 issue of TV Technology.


Reenactor Kevin Cottrell of Motherland Connextions is upstaged by Lulubelle as he practices the slave capture scene.

Bounty Hunters Miles Linnabery, Tom Lamont and William Wooley Jr.
drag Dwight Simpson off to federal court.  Despite a valiant attempt by the local citizenry, a runaway slave named Harrison Williams was returned to his master soon after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 went into effect.

We couldn’t leave Murphy Orchards without stocking up on homemade jams and jellies prepared in Carol Murphy’s nineteenth century kitchen.  From 1850 to 1861, the farm was a safe haven for people escaping from slavery. Located about 20 miles from the Niagara River in Lewiston, NY, it was one of the last stops before they crossed the river and into Canada.

Marianne Spencer and Becky Sullivan treated us to an assortment of hot teas and biscuits. 

He’d rather be fishing.  After hauling 50 lb. weights down Twenty-Mile Creek, producer Rich Gensheimer uses the jib arm to track a leaf swirling down stream.

Music weaves an intriguing layer of storytelling throughout the documentary.  Plantation songs echo through the forest, hand drums warn Africans when to escape, and spirituals foretell the day when “man, every man, will be free.”   Music becomes central to the story itself when the spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh are woven into the score. Burleigh, a celebrated African American composer, arranger and vocalist, learned many of the old plantation songs from his grandfather, Hamilton Waters, a self-liberated slave and a conductor on the Underground Railroad.  Burleigh was the first to bring spirituals to the concert stage in New York, where he performed for more than 45 years and inspired Anton Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

Jeff Gibbens, a trumpeter for the award-winning Erie Thunderbirds, puts his heart and soul into “Amazing Grace” and later performs “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to signal the beginning of the John Brown segment, aptly entitled “Blow ye Trumpet Blow.”


David Sturtevant rehearses a ballad for the John Brown segment while Rich Gensheimer rigs up the microphones.  David and his wife, Kelly Armor, are well-known for bringing traditional tunes to life.  They perform at festivals, special events, and museum programs throughout the region. 


Listen while Charles Kennedy Jr. directs the Safe Harbor choir in “Wade in the Water.”   Members of the choir include Angela Johnson, Irell Harden, Viola Williams, Crystal Walters, Patricia Harper, Larry Harden, Gwen Cooley, and Cheryl Rush Dix.  It was the first time many of these vocalists had ever performed together, and their harmonies were exquisite. 

Wade in the Water

Charles Kennedy composes the original music score as he watches the film’s rough cut.  Diane Miller, national coordinator of the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, appears to hover over the piano as Charles listens intently to the show.

The music for Safe Harbor was recorded live in one session at the First United Methodist Church of Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania, courtesy Bruce R. Gingrich, Dr. Andrew Harvey.  Bruce, who is a worship coordinator, organist and vocalist instructor, provided the accompaniment for many of the spirituals, including Burleigh’s “Go Down Moses,” for Safe Harbor