For approximately thirty years before President Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation, runway slaves from the southern states risked their lives to make their way north by way of the Underground Railroad. Their destination was Canada and freedom. If caught, they risked being flogged and returned to their masters if seized by the professionals who made a living hunting them down. It is estimated that some 75,000 slaves made their way north, assisted by 3,000 or so active sympathizers who gave them aid and shelter along the way. The Underground Railroad was spread out over fourteen states but was most widely developed in Ohio.
In 1815, Benjamin Lundy, whose home was in St. Clairsville, founded the anti-slavery organization called the Union Humane Society. Six persons attended the first meeting, but hundreds later joined. The first abolitionist newspaper in the United states was published in St. Clairsville in 1817 by Charles Osborn.
The Quakers were the leaders of the abolitionist movement. Earlier they had left their homes in the south to risk settling the North West Territory because of their aversion to slavery, and now they were again taking great risked to help the fleeing slaves. Anyone who abetted a slave's escape faced arrest and imprisonment. The Underground Railroad had no set route, it was just trails through the woods with stations approximately five to ten miles apart. The road was moved from one place to another for safety reasons. The Slaves were moved under cover of darkness, and were hid during the daylight hours.
The Ordinance of 1787 had forbidden slavery northwest of the Ohio River. Across the river, Wheeling was in Virginia, a slave state. The slave auction block was located at 10th and Market Streets. Slaves were sold much the same as was customary at horse sales. They were put on the block where prospective bidders could examine their teeth, muscles, etc. Many times entire families were put on the block only to be separated forever, each one having been sold to different bidders. When the auction was over, some slaves were taken overland into Virginia or other eastern states. Others would be herded and driven to the river boats to be taken south. Many slaves escaped by leaping into the Ohio River once they were aboard the boats. In many of these instances the slaves either drowned or were hit by gunfire from the boat.
However, there were many other methods for them to escape across the Ohio. Abolitionists sometimes hid them under sacks of grain or other merchandise on their way home from the market in Wheeling. In this way, they safely rode the ferry across the river at Martins Ferry. Sometimes they used the cover of darkness to canoe slaves across the river, and many times an escaping slave, alone and without help, swam across at night. In the winter it was possible to cross on the ice.
Once in Martins Ferry, there were several stations. On the north end of town (near Floral Valley), two colored men had a station. They were Richard Naylor and Samuel Cooper, whose operations were approved by their white co-workers. Naylor was born in slavery and had an innate hatred of the institution. After obtaining his freedom he engaged in the hazardous practice of receiving fugitives from Virginia and would ferry them across the river to the underground stations. After years of service, Henry Cooper was suspected of aiding fugitives, the evidence being so strong against him that he was liable to arrest. It was also feared he may be kidnapped and returned to slavery, so he quietly glided away to Canada. Circumstantial evidence against young Cooper's father was so damaging that he also took passage and fled. In Canada he was greeted by his son and a host of fugitives he had assisted in their flight. By playing the role of a drunkard, Naylor successfully eluded detection, and for several years by craftiness continued to furnish passengers. Finally after learning he was under suspicion and a plan was being made to capture him, he also engaged passage on the road. When Cooper and Naylor left, Thomas Pointer succeeded them. Pointer experienced in the work, and with the aid of Tobe Hance, a flour mill operator, near Glenns Run, the station was again opened for business. This was the period of the greatest activity of the Railroad.
The other station in Martins Ferry was the home of Joel Wood on North Third Street, formerly known as Walnut Grove. This home was on a high bluff over-looking the river and was easy for the slaves to see from the opposite side. This home had a secret room. A few years back it was purchased by the Martins Ferry Hospital and no longer exists.
At night they made their way up the old county road (Grant Avenue was known as the old County Road) to the home of Jacob Van Pelt on the hill west of town, located in what is now known as Ferryview. (Many escaping slaves had had the Van Pelt home pointed out to them from the Virginia shore. It is a huge white house sitting on the ridge next to the old Ferryview School, and is now the Berry residence.) A small room on the upper floor of the Van Pelt home was used to secret the runaways.
Again at night, they were taken over the hill and through the woods to Buckeye Hollow. In order to break the trail for the bloodhounds, they sometimes stopped at the log tenement house of Tom Pointer (located on part of the Van Pelt farm). Pointer had been a mulatto slave in Virginia. The ceiling of his cabin was made of boards closely nailed together. It looked as if there were no openings, but actually there was a small garret.
Another place sometimes used was an old deserted log cabin, known as the Clark Cabin, which also had a secret garret. This was also located on the Van Pelt farm, down in Buckeye Hollow.
From Buckeye Hollow they were taken to Joshua Cope's Grist Mill. This was the scene of many a thrilling escapes. This grist mill was originally built by Borden Stanton and sold to Joshua Cope in 1813. (Stanton had also used the grist mill to hide slaves.) An amusing story is told about his sons. When he emigrated to Belmont Count, Ohio, across from "Old Virginny", slaves soon began to disappear from that part of Virginia, and it became known that if a "Virginny nigger" fell under the guidance of Borden Stanton's sons, it was difficult for his pursuer to get further trace of him. So the Virginians "Put up a job" on the Stanton boys. They caused word to be given to the Stantons, privately, that on a certain night a skiff would cross the river with one of more runaway slaves, but there were no runaways. Instead there were some rough Virginians who sought to abduct the young Quakers and carry them across to Virginia. It was said that the Virginians were glad to go home without the young Stantons.
The end of the mill race terminated in a stone wall built crosswise of the mouth of it and some twenty-two feet long. From the face of this wall three slanting stone pilasters, or supports, were built out, one at each end and one in the middle. They extended some 30 feet from the wall at its base to nothing at the top, thus forming a kind of triangular pilaster of each, and leaving two spaces of 7 feet each between. The great water wheel of the mill occupied one of these spaces next to the road, its buckets coming close up to the wall to receive the water from the chute when running, the axle of the wheel resting in two of these pilaster walls. The other space at the side of the wheels and next the hill was used for the waste chute. Joists extended from one to the other of the chute pilasters and 2 inch boards extended and nailed on them lengthwise from the sill on top of the stone wall to the foot of the pilaster, some 35 feet from the wall and past the wheel. This formed the waste chute when the mill was not running, also to carry off any surplus water. The hill against which the side pilaster of the chute was built extended much further out and high above it. A board in the center of this chute was loose and when lifted formed an entrance by which a person could pass under. This board was provided with fastenings on the underside and could be safely closed by any one beneath. No one from the outside would for a moment suppose this plank was movable. On the underside of this chute, a small door in the stone pilaster, or wall against the hill, closed and entrance opening into a small room in the hill. This room was provided with a cot, two chairs, a small table with a few other household articles, and was quite comfortable in summer and winter.
Joshua moved a lever which turned the water from the wheel, stopped the mill, and at the same time raised the tail gate at the chute, turning the water down over it. When searchers looked at the chute, the water pouring down over it satisfied them and they went to the house. The water also covered the slaves' scent and the dogs were useless.
From Joshua Cope's grist mill they were sometimes taken over the hill to the old log barn of Joshua Steel. There they were hidden under the floor of his barn.
Another station just northwest of Colerain was the home of William Millhouse. This last named mansion had in the lower story, by the side of the large projecting chimney, a deep clothes press reaching but little higher than the head. Boards tightly nailed in formed the top of the press and from there to the ceiling it was lathed and plastered. In the room above and immediately over this press, the flooring was movable, and when opened, exposed a small recess in which two or three persons could sit, and was ventilated by a few auger holes from the outside. When the flooring was replaced, a carpet on the floor covered it, and on top of this was placed a large, broad, old-fashioned bureau.
Other stations in the Colerain area were the homes of Charles Wright (subsequently the Bracken stone and frame house near Jobetown); Isaac Vickers, some three miles east of Mt. Pleasant on the pike; George Clark, thought to be near Vickers home; and Isaac Loyd on Little Short Creek. From there they went to the home of Rev. Benjamin Mitchell, just east of Mt. Pleasant. Once they were in Mt. Pleasant, they were considered comparatively safe, so secure and secretive were the hiding places in that town. After they left Mt. Pleasant they stopped at William Robinson's house at Trenton, Ohio, and then on to Salineville, Hanoverton, New Garden, Salem and Oberlin.
Some of the more notable abolitionists of the Colerain area were Dr. Caleb Cope of Farmington, Dr. Caleb Bracken, Elisha Bracken, Nathan Starbuck, Jacob Fox, Elwood Radcliff, Jonahtan Updegraff, Solomon Bracken, Kenworhty Hope, William Sharon, Ellis Dungan, Isaac White and the Theakers.
In 1857 the Underground Railroad had a setback. Judge Taney of the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott was a Missouri slave who had been taken north by his master. After returning to Missouri the master died, and the Negro sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had resided in a free state and was therefore a free man. Although a Missouri court decided against him, Scott appealed, and the case finally reached the Supreme Court. The decision went against Scott again. This meant that any Southern resident could take his property north of 36 degrees, 30 minutes and have it protected by federal law. This made it very dangerous to hide the slaves, since federal marshalls were called in to hunt them down, and few cared to take the risk.
In August, 1859, Ellis Steel and his uncle O.C. Parker, conducted nine refugee slaves from the first station at Martins Ferry to the second where a team of horses and a wagon were ready to convey them to the third station where William Robinson took charge of them. This was the last full train to pass over the road. Thereafter, fugitives traveled the public highways, sometimes stopping to inquire the way to some friend in Mt. Pleasant or Trenton. After operating for 30 or more years the "Underground Railroad" was practically abandoned after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, and its work and purpose became but one of the many episodes of American History.
"If my name ever goes down into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it." Thus did Abraham Lincoln appraise his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announced on September 22, 1862, and made official by Presidential signature on New Year's Day 1863. The document proclaimed: "All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States -- will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons." Although the measure freed no slaves on January 1, 1863, it made inevitable the passage by Congress in 1865 of the 13th amendment, which finally ended slavery in the United States. And for all its limitations, the proclamation dramatically shifted the moral basis of the conflict from a war fought to restore the Union to a battle for human freedom.
(Submitted by Rev. Lloyd Smith, retired minister and Curator of the Mt. Pleasant Museum, Mt. Pleasant, Ohio. Reprinted with permission.)