Dwelling was Underground Railroad station
BELPRE – A home in Belpre was a station on the Underground Railroad.
Crossing the Ohio River in the dead of night with a conductor leading the way, many slaves made their way into Ohio and a chance at freedom.
For more than 200 years the Capt. Jonathan Stone House has stood near what is now Blennerhassett Avenue in Belpre. It was a safe haven for escaped slaves on their way to Canada.
The house on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, two years after the Barretts acquired ownership of the house in 1976. Since they bought the house, the Barretts have been working to keep it in decent shape.
“It’s the oldest house in Belpre,” said Jan Barrett, 75, who owns the house with her husband, Tom, 80. “It was built down on the river and moved up here around 1825.”
Jonathan Stone, builder of the home, was born in 1751, served in the Continental Army and was a Revolutionary War veteran. He was also a surveyor and moved to Belpre in 1789. Stone constructed Stone’s Garrison in 1793 and built the house around 1798.
Stone’s son, John, became a conductor for the Underground Railroad sometime before 1820.
Though the house was moved back from the river by teams of oxen, it was still a hot spot for hiding slaves traveling north toward Canada, said Nancy Sams, president of the Belpre Historical Society.
“The Underground Railroad was neither underground, nor a railroad,” Sams said. “Aunt Jenny (a famous area conductor) lived over in Marrtown, in what was then Virginia (across the river from the Stone house). They had a series of bells and whistles all along this area, and probably the Ohio River. When Aunt Jenny had passengers for the Stones to help, she’d make some kind of signal. They would have come across and remained hidden until it was safe (to move farther north).”
Jan said a room hidden at the top of a slim, steep staircase hid many slaves in need.
“There’s a room above the kitchen and that’s where they hid the slaves,” she said.
Though the room has recently been sealed by the Barretts, it is a reminder of the history behind the house, which they say is an interesting part of living there.
Sams said many trails and ridges were used in the area to get slaves to safety.
“They used natural trails and ridges, the shortest distance between two places,” she said. “They used the same trails to help escaping slaves that the Native Americans used. They also hid…people underground in caves, in barns and wagons with false bottoms…The slave catchers were not familiar with the terrain and could get easily lost.”
When the Barretts bought the house in the 1970s, they made a few changes to an otherwise original house.
“We took the carpet up,” Jan said. “These are the original (hardwood) floors. We built a bar in the kitchen.”
There are five rooms and a bathroom downstairs, with four bedrooms and two baths upstairs.
Tom said a lot of work has been done over the years.
“We redid the ceilings and put in paneling,” he said. “We planted most of the shrubs around the house. There’s a monument out front that tells a little about the history (of the house and its builder).”
Jan said there is more that can be done, but it’s hard to keep up with everything.
“It’s a lot of upkeep anymore, just cleaning,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff to be done, touch-ups and paint and such.”
Despite that, the house is well maintained, with Tom doing a lot of the yard work, the original brick oven still existing in the dining room and the original front door still in working order. Even the original glass is still in each window. Jan said she enjoys living in her historic home with her husband.
“Tom is originally from the area; he’s from Vincent,” she said. “That’s how we knew Belpre was here. (His family) knew we wanted to come down (from northern Ohio) and saw the ‘For Sale’ sign at the house. That’s how we found out about it. Belpre’s a nice little town. We like it here.”