The Underground Railroad

Not too long after we moved into our big brick house we studied the Underground Railroad in school. I was in third grade, I think. We were all fascinated by the stories of bravery and cruelty, and knew that this Railroad had gone through our village located close to Lake Erie and on the pathway to Canada. One of the houses that sheltered the people fleeing to Canada was right next door (shown above.) I wanted our brick house to be on the right side of history. I knew what railroad arches looked like — we drove under one to get to church on Sunday mornings. I was fascinated by the brick house we had moved into. It had a tower room with a ladder to it. It had unfinished third and second floor rooms. It had what I determined was a secret passage from a closet in the barn to the stairway. It had a trap door in the back room of the house to a crawl space that did not open to the basement.

Children were free in those days to entertain themselves if they did their chores and showed up at supper time. I had a flashlight. I used the big ring in the wood to open up the hatch, and dropped myself down the 2 feet or so into the dirt floor of the crawl space. I found a smoothed piece of bone and some old papers. I knew in an instant what I had discovered — a hiding place for the fugitives. And, in the basement itself I identified an arch, on the wall opposite the known safe house. Clearly it wasthe Underground Railroad passage, now filled in, locomotive no longer needed.

I showed my sisters, I showed my friends. I helped them all to imagine the hidden fugitives reading the papers, carving the bone, waiting to move on to the next place. Classmates and friends all took the tour. It impressed them and they remembered.

Years later Dad talked one evening about how people would ask him if they could see the Underground Railroad when they would visit the house. The first time it happened he explained that the house hadn’t been built till 1871, well after any need to hide fugitives. The next time he told them they had gotten the houses confused. But too many people wanted to believe the story and he couldn’t put it to rest. I too tried to get the truth out, standing and confessing at a class reunion. Nobody was interested in the facts of this rural version of an urban myth.

So Merv and I are going on a pilgrimage of sorts in a couple of weeks to Underground Railroad sites along the Ohio River. And I hope we will be able to recognize those times and opportunities for houses, and people to do the right thing. Myth and history both will judge us.

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