Sandusky's vital role in the Underground Railroad:unveiling a crucial hub in the fight for freedom

When Josiah Henson left the plantation where he had been enslaved in Maryland and traveled to Kentucky, it was his first trip as a free man.
He planned to reunite with his wife, Charlotte, and their children, who were living at his former master’s brother’s home in Kentucky and build a life for the first time as a man who was not “owned” by another human being. 

At least, that’s what he thought. 

When he arrived in Kentucky, he learned his former master had tricked him and never sent ahead the manumission paper that confirmed Henson had purchased his freedom and was no longer enslaved, as he had promised to do. His former master also claimed Henson still owed him $650 for the purchase of his freedom.

“Indignation is a faint word to express my deep sense of such villainy,” Henson said in his autobiography, “The Life of Josiah Henson,” published in 1849. “The only witness to the truth was my friend Frank, who was a thousand miles off; and I could neither write to him, nor get anyone else to do it.

Josiah Henson (Photo/Library of Congress)“Every man about me was a slaveholder, and what chance had I to be believed, or to get evidence to the truth.”

Devastated and demoralized, Henson and his family remained enslaved in Kentucky. It was 1828, and it would be more than 30 years before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would end slavery in the United States. 

When it became apparent to Henson two years later that the men enslaving him had planned to sell him in the deep South, he decided to take his freedom by leaving on the Underground Railroad. Like many freedom seekers, he and his family set out under the cover of night to cross the Ohio River and make their way up about 250 miles through Ohio to Lake Erie, where they would cross the water to Canada. 

They set out on the well-worn Underground Railroad route, hiking through the woods and being hidden by “conductors” in homes and barns all through Ohio until they reached the Sandusky area, where a kindly boat captain offered to take them to Buffalo, New York – on the border with Canada – at night. 

“A short row brought us to the vessel, and, to my astonishment, we were welcomed on board, with three hearty cheers, for the crew were as much pleased as the captain, with the help they were giving us to escape,” Henson wrote in his autobiography. 

On the morning of Oct. 28, 1830, Henson and his family reached Canada. 

“My first impulse was to throw myself on the ground, and giving way to the riotous exultation of my feelings, to execute sundry antics which excited the astonishment of those who were looking on.”

Henson was one of many freedom seekers, who found welcome, comfort and help to the freedom of Canada in Sandusky.

Throughout the city, men and women helped to hide freedom seekers in homes, local churches and on boats bound for Buffalo and or ultimately Canada. 

The city was so well-known for its Underground Railroad ties that Ohioan Harriet Beecher Stowe included it in her 1852 anti-slavery book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the bestselling novel of the 19th Century. Tom’s story in the novel is strikingly similar to Henson’s story. 

The Lucas Beecher house (Photo/Kristina Smith)Today, Sandusky continues to embrace that history and has created walking tours, bus tours, exhibits and historical markers for locals and visitors to learn, understand and celebrate the city’s role in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad. 

The welcoming spirit and kindness that Henson and his family received nearly 200 years ago is something the city strives to continue today. 

The city is embracing its history, diversity and location on the waterfront to bring visitors to the area and attract new residents and businesses to continue helping the city thrive and grow, says Eric Wobser, chief executive officer of the Greater Sandusky Partnership, an organization dedicated to growing Sandusky, Erie County and the surrounding region.

“It’s part of our DNA,” he says. “It’s who we are as a community, and I think it really fits with our strategy of building a destination economy. We want to find what tourists would see in the community as well as what somebody who would want to live in the community and build on that.”

Celebrating history through tourism, preservation

Although Sandusky’s picturesque spot on the lake and the popularity of Cedar Point amusement park are huge draws for visitors and group tours, there is a growing interest in the city’s rich history and a desire for visitors to see the same places that meant so much to freedom-seekers more than 150 years ago.  

Firelands Adventure Tours, which offers guided themed tours ranging from Sandusky hauntings in the fall to winery visits, created its own Underground Railroad tour a few years ago.

Building on the existing self-guided walking tours of Sandusky highlighting the Underground Railroad, Firelands Adventure Tours’ version offers a guided tour of stops on the Underground Railroad and places with a connection to it. The company also gives its patrons a background book on the history they can take with them.

“The regularity and the persistence of the tour were some distinguishing factors for our tour,” said Dick Ries, co-owner of Firelands Adventure Tours. “We wanted to present a complete and, as much as possible, explanation of the role that Sandusky played in the Underground Railroad.” 

The tour includes stops at the Maritime Museum of Sandusky, which has a detailed exhibit on the city’s connection to the Underground Railroad, as well as driving by sites that are not open to the public but important to the connection, such as the former home of abolitionist Rush R. Sloane.

The Rush R. Sloane house (Photo/Kristina Smith)“Our goal was to make the tour, as with all of our tours, substantive and immersive,” Ries says. “The people are standing where Freedom-seekers stood. I think that is impactful for people in understanding about the Underground Railroad here.”

People from Iowa, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, as well as out-of-state Girl Scout groups, have taken this tour, he says. Locals, too, have boarded the bus to learn more about the city’s heritage and historical importance.

Shores & Islands Ohio also receives requests from bus and group-tour operators who would like an itinerary outlining some of the sites significant on the Underground Railroad and giving overall history of the city’s deep connection to the anti-slavery movement. 

The tourism agency’s itinerary highlights seven stops, from the Jackson Street Pier, where freedom-seekers boarded boats to complete their trip to Canada to Second Baptist Church, which was founded by free-born Blacks and former enslaved people and served as a prolific Underground Railroad stop. 

Shores & Islands Ohio is working to update this itinerary to add more sites, including spots in neighboring Ottawa County.

“Throughout the year, we get asked by several different types of groups, senior travelers, student travel, etc. about the Underground Railroad and how they can incorporate it into their already- set itineraries,” says Tiffany Frisch, Shores & Islands Ohio assistant director of group accounts. “We work with them to tell them all there is in the area and how they are best able to see and experience everything that they want. This is also a very popular topic when we are out representing Shores & Islands Ohio at group trade shows.”

Outside of group travel, visitors who are following the Underground Railroad across Ohio and the country often stop in the Shores & Islands Welcome Center in downtown Sandusky and want to retrace the steps of freedom seekers all the way to the water where their boat would have launched onto Lake Erie, says Angie George, Shores & Islands Ohio visitor experience manager.

The Follett House (Photo/Kristina Smith)“I think it's standing on the same ground as the folks that risked everything at the chance to escape bondage and feeling that connection to them,” George says.  “(They are) learning the individual stories from not only the people involved in assisting enslaved people find freedom but also the turmoil of those seeking freedom.“

Highlighting history that’s important but also fascinating

Throughout the city, there were so many people involved in helping freedom seekers and advocating against slavery that not everything can fit into one tour. 

That’s an exciting legacy for a city that is embracing its past while being innovative with development and new business as it looks to the future, Wobser says.

A first stop for many seeking an overview of the city’s connection to the Underground Railroad starts with a visit to the Maritime Museum of Sandusky. Its exhibit gives context to slavery and the Underground Railroad and explains why Sandusky was such a popular spot for freedom-seekers to find help and refuge. 

Sandusky became an important stop because many steamships and boats left from its docks, including the Jackson Street Pier, and could smuggle slaves across the lake.

Sympathetic captains of sidewheel steamboats, such as the “Arrow” and “Walk-in-the-Water,” offered help. With slave catchers keeping a watchful eye on the steamboats, freedom seekers sometimes were taken to freedom in rowboats and small sailboats, including a type known as a Sharpie. 

The Maritime Museum exhibit includes a replica Sharpie built on a smaller scale using historic plans depicting a scene from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” where freedom seekers leave Sandusky in this type of boat. This type of boat was often used to unload fishing nets and had a large cargo capacity. It is the same type of boat that Henson and his family took during their journey, according to the museum. 

Sandusky also had a thriving population of free Blacks, who were the main conductors in the area before 1840, according to the exhibit. As the years went on, white abolitionists also became more involved. 

The Path to Freedom scultpure at Facer Park (Photo/Kristina Smith)A few blocks from the Maritime Museum, Facer Park facing Lake Erie shares details on some of the people who helped freedom-seekers who came to Sandusky. The centerpiece of the park is a sculpture, called “Path to Freedom,” of a family seeking freedom.

Engraved stone panels tell the story of conductors and others in the area who assisted in the movement. Conductor Grant Ritchie, a local barber who was Black, served as an Underground Railroad conductor. 

Businessmen, including Henry Merry, a builder, and Christopher Columbus Keech, who owned a hat factory, would give freedom-seekers work while they waited for their opportunity to cross Lake Erie. 

Another popular stop is Second Baptist Church, 315 Decatur St. The former enslaved people and freeborn Blacks who founded the church, as well as other members of the congregation, hid freedom seekers in the wooden frame building – known at the time as the First Regular Anti-Slavery Baptist Church – that was on the site before it was incorporated into the brick structure that stands there today and offered them food and fresh clothing before they continued their journey. 

The homes of attorneys Lucas Beecher, 215 W. Washington Row, and Sloane, 403 E. Adams St., as well as the home of Oran and Eliza Follett, 404 Wayne St., are all stops in or near downtown Sandusky. 

The Sloane and Beecher houses are not open for public tours, but they have historic markers citing their importance. The Sloane House is also an Air B & B, so it offers an opportunity to stay in a piece of Underground Railroad history, George says.

Second Baptist Church (Photo/Kristina Smith)Beecher defended people affiliated with the Underground Railroad, including the conductor and barber Grant Ritchie, in court, and Beecher’s home was a station on the railroad. He was a cousin of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and his work is believed to be inspiration for some of her book.  

Sloane, an abolitionist and later mayor of Sandusky, recorded more than 30 stories of the Underground Railroad. After helping seven freedom-seekers who were caught aboard a train in Sandusky legally be released, he was prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act and ordered to pay more than $4,000 in fines and court costs, according to the National Park Service Network to Freedom

Oran, a wealthy book publisher and railroad investor, and Eliza Follett are believed to have hidden freedom seekers in the outbuildings on their property that no longer stand. Today, their home is a museum operated by the Sandusky Library. 

One of the artifacts on display in the Follett House is a cane that was presented to Sloane by the Black residents of Sandusky for his work on the Underground Railroad. 

Those are just a few of the people and stories of Sandusky’s connection to the Underground Railroad. 

“We have a great historic story to tell here,” Wobser says. “Our history with the Underground Railroad makes us proud as a community. We want to continue to be a destination for people who are exploring that history or wanting to find a welcoming place.”