The Underground Railroad has always fascinated me. There was a time when I checked out every book I could find in the local university library to uncover the secrets of this mysterious organization. The story of the network of secret locations in a network of people aimed at smuggling freedom seekers to Canada has always intrigued me. It is hard to uncover the actual facts about this mysterious railroad with its illegal passengers and clandestine stations. What the engineers and conductors were doing to help people escape from bondage was unlawful. They could spend years in prison if they were caught and prosecuted. The free person of color risked being sold into slavery if their participation was discovered. It took bravery for the freedom seeker to make the commitment to cross the Ohio River into the free states. If they were caught before they reached the Canadian border, the consequences would be dire. They would undoubtedly be flogged, tortured, and sold into the deep south where there was little chance to escape again. The people who participated in the Underground Railroad are an example of profound courage. The Levi and Catharine Coffin house is one of the few remaining historical sites, which prove the Underground Railroad existed.
I have been trying to persuade Rooster to travel to the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site as one of our adventure destinations. He’s dismissed the idea I believe because he thought it was something a kid would enjoy, but he’d be bored by the visit. He hadn’t given much thought to the role the Hoosier state played in smuggling freedom seekers to Canada. He grew up in Southern California. It wasn’t a part of his early education. He would discover there was an exciting story to be uncovered in southern Indiana in the tiny community of Fountain City.
We drove past the windmill farm through the barren Indiana countryside until we reached the outskirts of a small community not far from Richmond, Indiana. It wasn’t difficult to find the Levi and Catherine State Historic Site. The large red house stood on highway 27, which was the two-lane main drag through the small town of Fountain City. We discovered the headquarters and gift shop located in a newly built white structure next to the original Coffin house. Our timing was terrible. The day we visited the historical site was a busy one. They had an overabundance of visitors. We were going to have to wait for an hour and a half until the next tour would be available. We meandered through the small museum constructed on the second floor. We read the historical accounts on the walls about the Underground Railroad and the stories about the ingenious methods freedom seekers devised to escape. One resourceful soul managed to mail himself north in a crate. It would take dedication to the plan and courage to climb into that wooden box and trust you wouldn’t be discovered before it was open at the other end of the journey.
Our stomachs started to growl in protest. I noticed a small restaurant by the side of the highway when we pulled into town. Rooster and I decided to grab a bite to eat. The Family Diner proved to be a perfect place to get a good lunch and spend time waiting for the next tour to begin. The décor leaned in the direction of a fifties car club. The customers were made up of local Fountain City citizens, the food prices were reasonable, and the service was prompt and friendly. I knew if we stuck around very long, the guys who hung out at their liar’s table would show up to start the day’s gabfest. Rooster and I were right at home.
The tour we took revealed so many interesting facts about the Underground Railroad it was difficult for me to process all the information. Fountain City was once called Newport. There was a large settlement of Quakers who migrated from the south to escape the horrors of slavery. Many of them settled in this small Indiana town, where they ran into another aspect of the slave system. People in bondage were moving through their new community to find freedom. Levi Coffin and his wife Catharine were among the Quaker’s migrating north. The couple moved from North Carolina and settled in Newport, Indiana. He built his house and opened a dry goods store. He started sheltering freedom seekers in the winter of 1826-27. Coffin soon earned the title “President of the Underground Railroad.” His home became Grand Central Station. He persuaded other members of the community to participate in the railroad with him. They were reluctant to get involved because what Levi was doing was illegal. The population gradually came on board as the horrors of slavery were unraveled in this small town through “library meetings” that were designed to argue the abolitionist cause. Levi’s participation in the railroad was never a secret. What protected him from abuse by the bounty hunters looking for the escaped freedom seeker was the community evolvement, and he was wealthy enough to hire a lawyer if they searched his house and wagon without a warrant. It would take the bounty hunter time to get the proper papers. The freedom seeker would be gone by the time they returned. Coffin also realized many of the products he sold in his store were produced by slave labor. He couldn’t fault the slave owner if he profited from the result of bondage. He led the way in finding free labor products to sell in his business. He moved to Cincinnati in 1847 to manage a warehouse dedicated to free-labor goods.
Our tour guide was knowledgeable about all aspects of the Underground Railroad. She led us through the barn and house, telling us about close calls, which occurred while Levi was a conductor on the railroad. He was able to outsmart the bounty hunters every time there was a threat to freedom seeker under his care. Our guide showed us the false bottom wagon used to transport freedom seekers, the well in the basement kitchen, a hiding hole in one of the upstairs rooms, and the door in the dining room freedom seekers knocked on to gain entrance into the house. She also informed us Fredrick Douglas was once a visitor to the Coffin house. She was quick to point out there were many free African American people who worked in the secret organization.
I liked the way the lady who conducted our tour didn’t paint the picture of the Coffin’s being the white heroes making a path for freedom seekers to escape. They were simply following their beliefs as Quakers. It was refreshing to be told about the role African Americans played in achieving their freedom. The African Americans participating in Underground Railroad work ran an even more significant risk than the Coffins. She also pointed out most of the freedom seekers who reached Canada did it without any help from the railroad. A person fleeing slavery never knew who they could trust. The consequences were dire if they were captured. It took extreme courage for a person to escape across the Ohio River. She always referred to the fleeing people as freedom seekers instead of escaped slaves. It was a more realistic reflection of the bravery it took to make a choice to escape to Canada instead of remaining in bondage. Once a person crossed the river, they were freedom seekers. Many of these people returned to rescue their families once they were established in Canada. This required and an even larger dose of courage. It would mean risking your new-found freedom to help the people you left behind.
What most impressed me about the Underground Railroad is what can be accomplished when people work together for the greater good. Helping freedom seekers wasn’t popular among all the citizens in the state of Indiana in the 1800s. Some considered what these people were doing amounted to the theft of a person’s property. It is incredible how the secret remained hidden for so long. The Coffins didn’t ask the names of the people they harbored or knew anything beyond the next station on the railroad. As Quakers, they didn’t want to have to lie if they got caught. This elaborate system went beyond ego, race, social status, or wealth. People of all backgrounds followed their convictions to work together to move this mass of humanity north. The only cost the freedom seeker paid to ride the train was the courage it took to climb on board. Right now in the United States, human trafficking is on the rise. Slavery is illegal, but it still exists in many forms. What will you do if a freedom seeker knocks on your dining room door?