Piecing Together the Underground Railroad

History, On the Road
on January 27, 2002

When Pearl Shelton impulsively bought the old, two-story building with a leaky tin roof, its value to her lay not in the bricks and mortar, but in the shadowy secrets it once held.

“I was reading an old magazine on the Bicentennial. It had a picture of this house and said it had been used to harbor fugitive slaves,” says Shelton, a retired nurse in Hopedale, Ohio. “But I knew that the house was going to be torn down so I bought it.”

The house, built in 1826, is believed by historians to be a strategic stop on the Underground Railroad, an organized system that helped and protected fugitive slaves in their flights to freedom between 1790 and the Civil War.

Hopedale is 18 miles from the Ohio River where Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania meet. “From here, we think slaves would go north toward Lake Erie and cross over into Canada, but I haven’t been able to verify that,” Shelton says. “There’s a 15-foot tunnel in the basement that leads to a dry well. That’s where we think they hid the slaves.”

Hopedale appears to be one stop on the Underground Railroad, a loosely defined network of routes that originated in the South, intertwined throughout the North, and eventually ended in Canada. But some routes took freedom-seekers as far south as the Caribbean and Mexico, as far north as Alaska, and as far west as California.

The railroad’s “passengers” were freedom-seeking slaves who had fled the plantation owners who had purchased them—and who wanted them back. The places where they were sheltered were known as “stations” and “depots,” and those who guided and aided slaves in their flight were called “conductors” and “station masters.”

Underground Railroad activity was cloaked in secrecy because anyone aiding, guiding, or sheltering a runaway slave risked being jailed or hurt financially or physically. And yet slaves ran, and sympathizers helped in their flight to freedom.

Such heroics prompted Jae Breitweiser and Dottie Reindollar to bid on another station—a three-story building set on a Lancaster, Ind., hill. Once known as Eleutherian College, the building, vacant since 1937, had helped guide slaves to freedom for 33 years.

It, too, is strategically located 12 miles from the Ohio River and was built in 1839 by a group of staunch abolitionists who settled the area. The college educated both blacks and whites, male and female. They even educated the fugitive slaves they helped hide, allowing them to work off their tuition, Breitweiser’s research reveals.

“We purchased the building to preserve it. And then we began investigating its history,” says Breitweiser, 61. “The story about the people who built the college and the students who attended it is far more important than just the building.”

Piecing the puzzle

For the most part, stories of the Underground Railroad remain buried deep in family memory and local legend. Substantiating stories and identifying “stations” have been difficult because time, progress, and the forces of nature have destroyed much of the physical evidence. Written memoirs and personal papers have been lost, and oral accounts have been forgotten.

But interest has not waned. Congressional leaders passed legislation in 1998 to fund the Underground Railroad Network, a national repository of information under the direction of the National Park Service. Its vision is to create a living museum of sites and programs, says Diane Miller, who oversees the network.

“The information that we have collected so far leads us to believe that it was more complex than historians traditionally described it,” Miller says. Indeed, as many as 100,000 slaves successfully escaped prior to the Civil War, scholars and researchers estimate.

The search for these routes, safe houses, persons who helped the fugitive slaves, and the identity of the slaves has become an intriguing puzzle that local people and organizations have been piecing together for years.

Enthusiasts such as Breitweiser and Shelton work on their own, aided by historical organizations and libraries to unearth data, authenticate stories, and explore sites to give a more comprehensive picture of the Underground Railroad.

“I didn’t have any idea that we would be taking it this far,” Breitweiser says. But, with the help of dedicated volunteers, they raised enough money to restore and stabilize the former college and opened a visitor’s center there.

Still, “money is a struggle all the time,” Breitweiser says. “It’s just blood, sweat, and tears” to keep the insurance paid, the heat on, and the electricity going.

At one point, Breitweiser wasn’t sure she would continue. Reindollar, her friend and partner in the preservation project, died, leaving Breitweiser to realize their vision alone. “I will really see this finished. Whatever it takes me to do, I’ll see this finished,” she says.

Her 10-year effort is succeeding. The stone structure has been recognized as a Save America’s Treasures site and is an official National Historic Landmark. Both designations recognize it as a structure worthy of restoration and having affected national history. Each year she gets closer to her goal of completing the building and making it into a functioning family research center.

Shelton envisions her own historic building as a museum, a place where students can learn about American history and the Underground Railroad in particular. “They never taught me about that part of history,” she says, “And now I want to educate other people.”

But she’s still a long way from getting there. Even though it no longer is open to the elements, nor is the back wall crumbling, it still is uninhabitable and a long way from being the educational resource center that she visualizes.

Shelton has spent the last 13 years of her retirement poring over engineering plans and architectural drawings, taking preservation courses, and writing proposals for preservation money so she can restore the building. Her determination to do so, despite lack of funds, lies in her commitment to unveil the truth and preserve a piece of history.

“I felt like history was being lost,” she says. “This building represents a period that is not just about slavery or African-Americans. It’s about American history.”

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