This Ind. home was once known as 'The Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad'
Thousands of freedom seekers escaping enslavement in the South crossed through Cincinnati on their journey north, often to safety in Canada. Levi and Catherine Coffin were fixtures on the Underground Railroad, but before they moved to Cincinnati, they provided safe harbor at their home in Indiana, just north of Richmond.
From Cincinnati, people followed U.S. 27 northwest to Indiana, passing through Richmond and finding shelter at the Coffin House in Newport, now called Fountain City.
The unassuming brick home - they were Quakers after all - provided safety and shelter for people escaping along the Underground Railroad. The couple welcomed people at all hours of the day and night - as many as 17 arriving at one time. The house became known as "The Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad" and Levi Coffin was called "The President of the Underground Railroad."
Eileen Baker-Wall is a docent and board member at the Levi & Catherine Coffin House. Her great, great grandfather made his way along the Underground Railroad and decided to make a home in Fountain City. Generations of her family stayed, too. She felt called to help tell the story of how the Coffins came to Indiana from North Carolina.
"Levi Coffin had seen as a little boy a slave being mistreated by his master, and he had wanted to know, what was that all about?" Baker-Wall explains. "When he was told by his parents what it was about, he said that when he grew up, he wanted to help those people get free, that he didn't like what he had seen. And he felt from that time that slavery was wrong."
The Coffins built their two-story Federal-style home right on the main street through town in 1839. It included a full basement - very unusual for the time - which operated as a summer kitchen, possibly providing a safe place for Catherine Coffin to cook meals without being too noticeable for people who arrived at all hours. It was also built on top of a natural spring, which allowed Levi Coffin to engineer a working well inside the home for fresh water. The well still operates to this day.
The Coffins were so successful that every freedom seeker - some 2,000 people - who came through their home eventually made it to freedom, according to the Indiana State Museum. The house was well-positioned to receive freedom seekers arriving from three directions: Cincinnati, Madison, Ind., and Louisville, Ky.
"(Freedom seekers) could know that there were places of comfort and safety for them to get on up and away from their slave masters, hopefully, and and get to freedom," says Baker-Wall. "This house became the house here in Indiana, where those three trails converged."
Several years ago, the Indiana State Museum converted the Coffin house into a museum and added a visitors center next door. The Smithsonian in 2016 named the Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center as "one of 12 new museums around the world to visit."
Who was Levi Coffin?
Baker-Wall describes Levi Coffin as a man of prominence in the community; a man with clout. He was a merchant and funneled much of his wealth into the Coffins' abolition work. Their work was dangerous and they were breaking the law, but they persisted.
"Everybody knew what was going on. Isn't that amazing?" Baker-Wall muses. "I don't think there would have been anybody in this town at that time that wouldn't have known what was going on. The town was quite supportive for the most part. If anybody came into town that was peculiar or not known or a stranger or a bounty hunter, they could quickly let Levi Coffin know what was going on.
"Everybody knew what he was doing. They respected him. He did it."
The Coffins moved from Indiana to Cincinnati in 1847 where they opened another dry goods store which would only sell goods made by free labor, meaning it offered nothing made by enslaved people.
They continued helping people escape to freedom. It's estimated they helped more than 3,000 people in total make it to freedom. According to Britannica, they are thought to be the inspiration for the characters Simeon and Rachel Halliday in Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Coffins lived near Stowe during their time in Cincinnati.
The couple are buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.
The Levi & Catherine Coffin Museum is offering free admission for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17.