The Travel Professor
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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

All aboard the Underground Railroad in Ripley Ohio

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 OH. This was a very an 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.

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

On to stop 2 but I’ll cover that later.