The Underground Railroad is famous -- and shrouded in mystery. After all, people were breaking the law when they harbored or conducted escaped southern slaves to freedom, not to mention the jeopardy faced by the slaves themselves. By its nature, it was a clandestine network, protected by secrecy.
Today, it’s easier to verify what’s not an Underground Railroad site. For example, a house built in the 1880s with an unusual hidden space under the eaves or in the basement -- well, that’s not Underground Railroad material. The network ended with the Civil War in 1865. Built after that year and it’s just an odd compartment, not a space that hid slaves.
The Underground Railroad was not a railroad, not subterranean, not a single route, and the “stations” were fields and people as often as they were buildings. It was a network, really, of people committed to helping “conduct” slaves to safety in the north.
Even though the Underground Railroad followed several paths through Indiana, only about a dozen Hoosier landmarks have proven ties. One family’s connection is uncontested: between 1827 and 1842, Quakers Levi and Catherine Coffin sheltered at least 2,000 brave escapees on the way to freedom in what is now Fountain City in eastern Indiana.
Thousands of school kids visit their home, a state-owned National Historic Landmark, every year. Built in 1839, 12 years after the Coffins got involved as conductors on the Underground Railroad, it does have a concealed compartment where as many as 20 people could hide, a cool feature that children remember and one that may perpetuate the hidey-hole idea.
Levi Coffin House
Waynet.org history on Levi Coffin House
Nps.gov history on Levi Coffin House
Indiana State Museum history on Levi Coffin House
Levi Coffin slideshow on YouTube
PBS Underground Railroad
National Geographic interactive Underground Railroad website
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center