History trip follows local Underground Railroad

Published 12:10 am Sunday, October 26, 2008

One of the components of Ohio University’s recent Freedom Festival was to focus on the Underground Railroad and in particular the role that the citizens of the Ohio River valley played. The mighty Ohio served as the boundary between free and slave territory and a rich history of the movement of fugitive slaves through this region along with the actions and activities of slave hunters tracking them still exists today.

A supplemental Education on Location trip attempted to retrace the footsteps of countless fleeing African slaves as we traveled from Ironton to the countryside of Mason County, one of Kentucky’s most notable historic routes to freedom along the path that became known as the Underground Railroad. This was the “railroad” that weaved through Old Washington and Maysville Ky. and led to freedom once across the Ohio River. In Old Washington we observed the court house lawn where Harriet Beecher Stowe observed slaves being sold and folk lore says that this was her inspiration to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Our tour guide described the path taken by Stowe’s character “Eliza” and her baby “George” to the Dover Landing in Maysville then how she crossed the Ohio River on ice floes to a beacon of light on the Ohio hillside known as the Rankin House.

Instead of ice floes or flatboats our coach crossed via the new Ohio River Bridge and motored to the John Rankin House in Ripley. This was a very important stop on the Underground Railroad in southern Ohio a place through which many slaves escaped from the South to freedom. Mr. Rankin was a Presbyterian minister and educator who devoted much of his life to the antislavery movement. In 1826 he published his antislavery book, Letters on American Slavery. In 1834 he founded the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in Zanesville. From 1825 to 1865 Rankin and his wife Jean, with their Brown County neighbors, sheltered more than 2,000 slaves escaping to freedom, with as many as 12 escapees being hidden in the Rankin home at one time.

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John Rankin was a close associate of John Campbell, the founder of Ironton, and visited this area frequently. Legend has it he used the iron industry of the day to help move his passengers along the “ railroad”. He passed away here in 1886 at the Colonel George N. Gray house current location of the Lawrence County Museum.

Today the house is a National Historic Landmark and included in the National Underground Railroad to Freedom Network. Outside the home is a reconstruction of the “Freedom” stairway used by slaves to climb from the Ohio River to the Rankin House. Visitor information can be obtained by calling (937) 392-1627 or at http://ohsweb.ohiohistory.org/places/sw14/.

At the bottom of Rankin Hill is the John P. Parker House another important stop on the Underground Railroad. Today it is a museum owned by the John P. Parker Historical Society.

During our visit we discovered that John Parker was born a slave. In 1845, he purchased his freedom and eventually made his way to Indiana and Ohio, settling in Ripley in 1850. He opened an iron foundry and eventually purchased a brick home. Parker also became active in the Underground Railroad, commonly traveling across the Ohio River and helping fugitive slaves from Kentucky escape to the North. Parker routinely took the fugitives to John Rankin, another abolitionist who resided in Ripley. Rankin hid the runaway slaves and assisted them in their journey further north. During the American Civil War, Parker served as a recruiter for the 27th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the end of slavery in 1865, Parker devoted his energies to his foundry business.

Since the late 1990s, the John P. Parker Historical Society has owned the Parker House. This organization has diligently worked to preserve the home. The John P. Parker Historical Society has also formed alliances with numerous other educational and preservationist groups to educate people about the Underground Railroad and John Parker’s role in it. Since 2002, the society has opened the home to visitors and they can be contacted at and their contact data is http://www.johnparkerhouse.org or 937.392.4188.

Another worthwhile stop on our trip was the National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville, KY. Located at 38 West Fourth Street in the historic Bierbower House this venue is a documented safe house on the Underground Railroad (UGRR) network. Friendly and knowledgeable guides met our group and did a splendid job of interpreting the UGRR plus they showed us the original kitchen and slave quarters where fugitive slaves were hidden under false floors while they on the run to freedom. To schedule a visit contact these fine folks at http://bierbower.org.

This one day trip was full of educational experiences and is only a 90 minute drive from Ironton. In addition to the UGRR the Old Washington, Maysville and Ripley regions offers plenty to see and do. I think that I am going to head back to Old Washington KY the first week of December and take in their Frontier Christmas. This festival is held in the scenic 1780s pioneer village featuring seven museums, strolling costumed carolers, dulcimer, banjo and fiddle playing; learn the art of candle making, period craft demonstrations. Go to www.cityofmaysville.com/tourism/old%20washington.html for details.

There is also much documented evidence on the Underground Railroad in Lawrence County and the surrounding region so one day we may head off on a tour of our own back yard.