Underground railroad stories show our rich history

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 18, 2010

The last weekend’s opening of the Lawrence County Museum reminded me of current Underground Railroad (UGRR) research being conducted by Ohio University Southern students and a recent piece I wrote about a journey down river.

The article talked about an Underground Railroad (UGRR) themed tour that included a stop at the Rev. John Rankin house in Ripley.

He was a leading station master on the UGRR and he had strong ties to the Ironton area.

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A station master provided UGRR fugitives with food, shelter, money, clothing and information, thereby facilitating their escape. They also allowed his/her residence to be used as a UGRR station/safe house.

John Rankin was a close associate of John Campbell, the founder of Ironton, and visited this area frequently.

Legend has it that both Rankin and Campbell used the iron industry of the day to help move his passengers along the “railroad.”

In the terminology of the era they were both “conductors” who helped guide the fugitive slaves to a UGRR station (safe house).

Rev. Rankin’s daughter Mrs. Wilson Humphries and her husband purchased Ironton’s Col. George N. Gray house. Upon the passing of his wife Rev. Rankin moved in with the Humphries. He resided there until his death in 1886. Today the Gray home is the current location of the Lawrence County Museum.

It is located at 506 South 6th St., Ironton, and are open on weekends so plan to stop in.

The founder of Ironton John Campbell was also a station master.

His home had secret rooms where runaway slaves where hidden from authorities. Unfortunately modernization has removed these hiding places.

The Ironton Underground Railroad story does not stop with the deaths of John Rankin and John Campbell.

Local historians and students have continued to research this topic and have unearthed some interesting facts and stories.

Here’s is “A Tale of Two Conductors” as told by Joe Bass, and Dennis Lambert Ohio University Southern students.

Their mission is to tell the stories of our past while their passion is to develop a tribute to Lawrence County’s role in the UGRR.

“Much of Lawrence County and Ironton history has been lost, but two strong characters of African descent that lived and worked here, striving to free their fellow men from the bonds of slavery, has been recovered,” the tribute states.

No known pictures of these men exist, but their stories will live on.

Ironton was a point of crossing for enslaved men and women during the days of the “Underground Railroad.”

They would receive help from conductors stationed here. The main source of their activities as conductors and their route taken through Ironton came from a writer for the Ironton Register in 1878 and interviews by Wilbur Siebert, a professor at Ohio State University in 1894.

The first of these noble men was James Ditcher (Ditcher), who was known as the “Red Fox” of the Underground Railroad. Arriving from Pennsylvania to Ironton, shortly after the founding of the town, he began his covert operations.

Ditcher got his name from his light complexion, reddish hair and his ability to evade capture. By his count, he took 300 slaves from the river to points north.

According to the 1860 census, Ditcher was a day laborer. We know he worked as a plasterer and barkeep at the Rist Saloon on Railroad Street. Though this being his honest wage, when called he would drop whatever he was doing to assume his more important duties as a conductor helping those in need.

The second conductor to mention is Gabe Johnson. Ironton’s first African American barber.

Arriving in Ironton, November 1855 at the age of 24, he opened a barber shop on Front Street near the post office; this was a station for those on the run.

Gabe would work with James Ditcher and several local abolitionist, helping conduct those in need to safety.

One of the stations other than the Barber shop was his residence, where he would hide those on the run, in a coal bank behind his house near Willow Alley, until it was safe to go north.

Many of these stations are no longer in existence, as Ironton has changed over the last century. But the story and path still remain.

James Ditcher and Gabe Johnson are still here in memory and soul. They lay at rest in Woodland Cemetery. Please contact Joe Bass and Dennis Lambert by email or phone if interested in a more in-depth story at jbplnt@yahoo.com or Dennis Lambert 740-479-2266.”

Joe and Dennis have invested hundreds of hours in local history research and are almost ready to deploy a tour that will highlight the UGRR and early history tour of Ironton and Lawrence County. I’ve been helping them tweak their unique product that will show off what the Lawrence County Ohio river cities and region has to offer.

I don’t know why I am quoting baseball movies but here is a quote from “Field of Dreams” “Build it and they will come!” should help guide our development of the local tourism product.

As a region the Tri-State has plenty to offer. As individuals and a community we need to pull together and build it.

I encourage interested folks to contact me at 740-533-4559 or call@ohio.edu and let’s develop then market our local tour products. We are only limited by imagination and creativity.