Freedom's Rails | Midwest Living

Freedom's Rails

More than 40,000 slaves traveled the Underground Railroad to freedom during the half century leading up to the Civil War.

Several Heartland states were home to a network of key stations for those heading North on the invisible rails. On some of these routes today, you can tour homes of famous abolitionist conductors and visit historic sites and museums.

One of the busiest extended from the vicinity of Cincinnati northwest through central Indiana. History credits the Presbyterian minister John Rankin with helping free more than 2,000 slaves. Peering into the attic and cellar of Rankin's home in Ripley, Ohio (50 miles southeast of Cincinnati), it's easy to imagine both the terror and the jubilation of slaves hiding there.

You also can view the two-story red brick home of freed slave John Parker, who helped 400 other slaves escape. Archaeologists are excavating behind the house at the site of Parker's Phoenix Foundry, one of the Civil War era's few African-American-owned businesses. Both the Rankin and Parker houses are National Historic Landmarks.

From Ripley and Cincinnati slaves traveled through Ohio and Indiana by night. Many headed for Newport, Indiana, now called Fountain City (50 miles northwest of Cincinnati). There they found shelter in the "Grand Central Station" of the railroad, the unassuming home of Levi Coffin and his wife, Catharine. More than 2,000 escapees passed through the Quaker abolitionists' residence. Coffin chronicled accounts of escaping slaves in his book, Reminiscences.

Guides in period dress lead tours at the Coffins' 1839 home, now a state historic site. You can peer into the garret space that could hide up to 14 people. Then, visit the barn, where runaways piled into the secret compartments of false-bottom wagons.

John Rankin's home

John Parker's home

Levi Coffin's home

Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Add Your Comment