Indiana's ties to Underground Railroad

2013-02-19T00:00:00Z 2013-02-26T11:51:08Z Indiana's ties to Underground RailroadJane Ammeson Times Correspondent
February 19, 2013 12:00 am  • 

With two children dead and buried, the thought of her last remaining child being sold into slavery made Eliza Harris determined, no matter what the risk, to make her way from Kentucky to Canada and freedom. And so late one night, Harris bundled up her two year old daughter, crossing the winter landscape to the shores of the Ohio River.

Her plan was to walk across the frozen waters, but a thaw had turned the solid ice into chunks.  When the weather didn’t change and with her pursuers getting closer, Harris took the risk, wading into the freezing water, climbing on and off ice floes drifting along the wide river until she miraculously found her way to Indiana soil.

But Harris’ journey was far from over. A succession of Fugitive Slave acts allowed slave hunters to come north and capture runaways. But while slave hunters could earn big rewards, they were opposed by a counter force not interested in money but in justice — the men and women, freed slaves and white Hoosiers who formed the spider-like system of trails leading from Indiana through Michigan to Canada called the Underground Railroad.

Because of the success of the Underground Railroad, the Fugitive Acts were broadened in 1850 and anyone assisting or helping hide fugitive slaves could be sent to prison and fined $1,000, a huge amount of money back then.

But Harris had landed in the right spot — not far from the home of Quaker Levi Coffin, a successful businessman nicknamed the “President of the Underground Railroad.” Coffin, whose house is now a museum, had hidden rooms and false panels in wagons to hide those journeying on the Underground Railroad. From his house, Harris and her daughter made their way to Canada where they prospered.

Years later she would see the Coffins, who were visiting Ontario, and thank them for all that they had done.  Harris’ ordeal was immortalized when Harriet Beecher Stowe, a staunch abolitionist, used her story in her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” keeping her name the same. Thus, the world came to know the horrors of slavery and Harris' bravery.  

An avid abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived across the river in Cincinnati, Ohio, learned firsthand about slavery by interviewing slaves who’d made the journey along the Underground Railroad. Like Indiana, Ohio didn’t have slavery and because of its proximity to Kentucky was also a major player in helping freedom seekers.

Other historic river cities in Indiana such as Madison and New Albany were also important stops on the Underground Railroad.

The Georgetown area of Madison, with over 133 blocks listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was one such place. It was here that many leaders of the abolitionist movement lived and operated.  Many of these historic buildings still remain and can be seen on the Georgetown Historic Interpretive Walking Tour Map, downloadable at

New Albany, Ind. also has its share of Underground Railroad landmarks. The 160-foot tower of the Town Clock Church, built in 1852, was a beacon for those on the river. The church’s interior had several hidden rooms where escaping African Americans could rest on their way north to freedom.

Ripley County, Indiana has established five Underground Railroad driving maps which take visitors to historic spots, re-tracing the perilous journeys undertaken to achieve freedom. The maps, put together after much research, include Bonaparte Restaurant in Napoleon, a small dot of a town.

Built sometime before 1838 as a tavern and in 1852, it was bought by abolitionists William Love and William Howe.  Love renamed the brick building the Rail Road House Hotel, though the only railroad here was the Underground Railroad. The tavern had a dead space between two walls as well as a hidden room and tunnel on the south side of the building.  The room was only accessible by the trap door from inside the tavern — a drop of ten feet and a tunnel leading out to a mill pond.

Though the tunnel and secret room are still there but isn’t open to the public. But Bonaparte is known for their food, including their fried chicken, so visitors can enjoy a meal in a place so connected to history.

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