The Underground Railroad through Ohio
The Ohio River was a demarcation line between slave states and free, and many of the towns on both sides of the river held conductors and stationmasters. In the small river town of Ripley, across the river from Mason County Kentucky, a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist named John Rankin found his home visited at all hours by slave owners or slave catchers demanding information about fugitive slaves. Rankin moved his family to a new home on a hill near the town’s outskirts, which afforded him views of the town below and across the river to the Kentucky riverbank. He also planted fruit trees and vegetables to sell in town.
From Rankin’s house a light would be shown, from a lantern raised on a pole (local folklore claims it was from a window of the house) to notify slaves on the other side when it was safe to cross the river. Rankin built a stairway in the side of the hill facing the river, for slaves to use to ascend to the house. After being fed (from his gardens) and properly clothed the fugitives began to travel north through Ohio on lightly used roads and woods paths. Some elected to remain in Ohio, finding employment on farms and in factories, which led to resentment among many whites, and opposition to the abolitionists and those helping escaped slaves increased.
The various routes led to the towns along Lake Erie, and the routes through Ohio consisted of more than 3,000 miles of trails and roads. As in other states, conductors used circuitous routes to throw off pursuit, and very few moved directly north. As a result the trip was usually much longer in duration than it needed to have been. Larger towns were for the most part avoided on the way to Canada. After the enactment of the federal Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 made the act of assisting escaping slaves a federal crime, those in opposition to the Underground Railroad became an even bigger threat to the system.
Before the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, escaped slaves hid in the larger cities and towns of Ohio in the segregated black communities. After the law allowed them to be pursued by slave catchers this became riskier, and sometimes led to racial confrontations and riots. This further led to increased opposition to the abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. Despite the risks, through the 1850s the movement of escaping slaves through Ohio increased. Kentucky slave owners opposed the building of a suspension bridge across the Ohio River, which began in 1856, because of the ease with which slaves would be able to cross to Ohio and melt into the black population of Cincinnati.
Similar Underground Railroad networks existed in Indiana on Ohio’s western border and often conductors crisscrossed between the states. Most of Ohio’s eastern border was at that time with Virginia, now West Virginia. There were Underground Railroad stations and conductors at Marietta, Portsmouth, and other towns across the Ohio River from Virginia, which fed fugitives from Virginia slave catchers into Ohio’s Underground Railroad network. Many of the slaves which escaped to Canada through Ohio returned to the United States after slavery was abolished, some to jobs in the growing cities.