RIPLEY, Ohio – A candle in the window of the preacher’s house high on a hill overlooking the Ohio River meant the coast was clear, that runaway slaves could find temporary refuge on their flight from the South.
For many – an estimated 3,000 – it was the first stop on the route to freedom that became known as the Underground Railroad, a series of safe houses where abolitionists, Quakers, free blacks and others hid fleeing slaves from bounty hunters.
This was the home of the Rev. John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister who is reputed to have told Harriet Beecher Stowe the story of a runaway slave and her child who crossed the frozen Ohio River, a tale that Stowe recounted later in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Rankin House was typical of hundreds of secret meeting places, churches and homes of well-known abolitionists that were used as safe houses in nearly two dozen states.
“I tell you what was stunning – chilling – was seeing the Rankin House up on that hill because I knew that history, and not much has changed as far as what it looks like,” said Joan Southgate, who walked 519 miles across Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York three years ago visiting Underground Railroad sites.
“That brought back to me what it must have been like to people on the Kentucky side to look at that beacon of hope,” she said.
Of the estimated 4 million slaves in the pre-Civil War South, about 100,000 are believed to have escaped along the Underground Railroad, north to Canada and south to Mexico and the Caribbean.
More than 500 routes are believed to go through Ohio alone, but from the early 1800s until the Civil War, runaways fled to freedom all along the line separating North from South. Some of those routes have been documented but were not general knowledge at the time.
“As with any illegal activity, you didn’t run around telling everybody what you were doing,” said Betty Campbell, spokeswoman for Rankin House. “And you probably didn’t take the same route all the time.”
Some of the safe houses, with their secret panels and attic and basement hiding places, are part of travel itineraries available from the National Park Service ( www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/).
The Park Service lists 60 Underground Railroad historic sites in 21 states. Ohio, with 11, has more than any other. Some, such as the Rankin House, offer guided tours. Visits to others are self-directed, such as the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati also is home to the $110 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, an overall repository of information about the time.
About 125,000 people have visited the center since it opened in August. Crowds are expected during February, which is Black History Month.
Five states – New York, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia – have sites associated with firebrand abolitionist John Brown, who led skirmishes in Kansas and later a raid on a federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., in hopes of securing guns for a slave rebellion.
Visitors can see Brown’s farmhouse and grave site in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he lived from 1849 to 1855; the cabin in Osawatomie, Kan., where he spent the next two years with his sons, also abolitionists; and houses in Samples Manor, Md., and Chambersburg, Pa., where he divided his time while he planned the 1859 raid on the arsenal.
Last year, about 260,000 people visited the Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park about 65 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., spokeswoman Marsha Wassel said. The 3,000-acre site bridges Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia, including Civil War battlefields and the fort where Brown made his last stand before being captured and hanged.
Activities there are self-directed, including walks along hiking trails that overlook the battlefields. One museum on the site chronicles the story of Brown and the abolitionist movement, focusing on the raid and Brown’s trial and execution. Brown’s family Bible is among the artifacts.
In Auburn, N.Y., visitors can see the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, a simple frame home where the former slave – who became a scout, nurse and spy during the Civil War – helped more than 300 runaway slaves finish their flight.
In Washington, D.C., there’s the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, including the home where the anti-slavery activist lived and worked the last 18 years of his life. Among the artifacts on display are Douglass’ hymn book and several walking canes, including one made from remnants of one of John Brown’s homes.
Green Line bus service is available here, but most sites require a trip by car. The National Park Service Web site can help find a starting place, and travelers can make up their own route.
People visiting any of the sites will want to allow time to ponder their significance. Southgate, who was 73 when she made her trek, walked about six miles a day, mostly alone and on back roads, and often found herself thinking about the hardships and fears of the runaways.
“Every once in awhile, just putting one foot in front of the other … I could think about how frightening that must have been,” she said.
Although her walk took months, a person traveling by car could see half a dozen sites in southwest Ohio in a day.
“There’s a real resurgence of trying to find where these sites are, people wanting to see and maybe relive a little of that history,” said Rosa Caskey, of the Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce.
“People go to Ripley, that leads them to the Freedom Center, and from there, if you’re interested in history, you’re going to want to visit our museum. They all fit together. It’s a continuation.”
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