During the Christmas holiday, my husband and I drove to Cincinnati, OH to visit family. Since I was unable to visit the Rankin House during my last trip in October 2010, I decided to trek the hour drive to Ripley, OH and visit the home on Liberty Hill.
From my readings, I had been able to imagine the house, on the Ohio River and the Kentucky bank. I saw sketches of the house and visited websites¹ and links to the Rankin house. What I was not prepared for was 1) how small the house actually is and, 2) how far away the house is from the Ohio River. (At least 100 wooden steps once you were past the path from the river.) Located on Liberty Hill, the house sheltered 2000 fugitive slaves making their way to freedom in Canada and was “a beckoning symbol of freedom that could be seen for many miles along the river.”²
The river was much narrower then – approximately 150 yards compared to the over 600 yards (p.214) from the Kentucky bank to the Ripley, Ohio bank. This was due to dredging of the river in the late 1800s and early 1900s as well as the lock and dam system put in place for the boat commerce.
As a Presbyterian minister, Rankin’s sermons “reiterated three basic principles: that all men were created equal, that God had ‘made of one blood all nations of men,’ and that every man ought to either do his own work or pay the man who does it for him.” (p.192) Although he never personally helped advance the fugitive slaves as a conductor (p. 207) (his sons generally did that), he was instrumental in developing three pillars of the Underground Railroad. The first consisted of antislavery Presbyterian ministers, the second included politicized white abolitionists (Ohio Anti-Slavery Society) and African-Americans were the third pillar. (p198-199)
If there was a light emanating, it was safe to cross. The Rankin website indicates that the light was either a lantern or a candle. Standing at the Ohio River, looking up at the house, I could barely make out the door or windows, let alone see if a candle was burning. However, at night, it might be a different view. On the other hand, perhaps he, or one of his 13 children, was at a location closer to the river. The Rankin house sent the fugitive slaves and their conductors north and westward, and many passed through the Coffin house in Fountain City, Ind.
¹ “Rankin House.” Ohio History Central, accessed January 3, 2011. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=3098.
² Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005), 190.
Photo gallery link: Cole Furniture. http://www.colefurniture.com/gallery/rankin_house_ripley.htm (3 January 2011).