BELPRE - A new marker telling a remarkable story was unveiled at the Farmers' Castle Museum and Information Center Sunday in Belpre.
The marker is the fourth in a series of seven markers that are being placed to mark important places and events in the Underground Railroad in southeast Ohio.
The Belpre marker relates some of the ways the fugitive slaves were assisted by Ohio citizens on their road to freedom and a July 1845 Underground Railroad incident that nearly led to war between Virginia and Ohio.
Ohio state Rep. Jimmy Stewart, R-Athens, left, and local historian Henry Burke unveil a new Underground Railroad Marker at the Farmers’ Castle Museum and Information Center in Belpre Sunday.
Photo by Dave Payne Sr.
"What we know is that the Underground Railroad started in Belpre," said Henry Burke, local Underground Railroad historian. "We're trying to show how fugitive slaves crossed the Ohio River and who helped them," he said.
The markers are made possible by an $18,000 grant from the Ohio Legislature to the Ohio Historical Society and Burke in association with the Belpre Historical Society and are being placed along the Underground Railroad's network in the Muskingum Valley Corridor.
Once runaway slaves found their way to Belpre, they found a network of people willing to help, especially after abolitionists organized themselves in the 1830s, Burke said.
"Once the Abolitionist Society was founded in 1831, it was a covert operation and well-funded. These people were committed to putting an end to slavery," he said.
The marker speaks of Judge Ephraim Cutler listening for "hoot-owl calls" that signaled when a boatload of runaway slaves was approaching the Ohio shore, as well as "Aunt Jenny," a slave on the Virginia side of the river who played certain notes on a horn signal to alert abolitionist John Stone in Belpre that fugitive slaves were crossing.
In Little Hocking, the marker says, fugitive slaves looked for a lantern signal to guide them to the Horace Curtis Station on the Ohio side of the river.
The marker also tells of Thomas Vickers at Twin Bridges and James Lawton of Barlow who helped slaves traveling northward.
State Rep. Jimmy Stewart, R-Athens, said the actions of those participating in the Underground Railroad in the area speaks volumes about moral responsibility.
"It answers the question of what responsibility do we as citizens have when there is an unjust law," he said.
Stewart said it is remarkable what the abolitionists of Ohio endured to help people gain their freedom.
"Col. Stone had a cannon on the Virginia side pointed at his house. Imagine waking up and finding that," he said.
The obverse side of the marker tells of an incident that nearly led to war between Ohio and Virginia. Fighting between two individual states wasn't as far-fetched before the Civil War as it might seem today. Just a decade earlier, Ohio and Michigan had nearly gone to war because of conflicting territorial claims to Toledo.
In July 1845, armed slave catchers apprehended six fugitive slaves as they got out of a boat on the Ohio shore. They also arrested three Belpre residents who had been helping the slaves. They were held without bail in a Parkersburg jail for violating Virginia's fugitive slave laws (there was no federal fugitive slave law at the time).
Since the Ohio-Virginia (and now West Virginia) border was the low-water mark on the Ohio side of the Ohio River, the question was raised as to whether the prisoners had been apprehended in Ohio or Virginia. Ohio's governor threatened to send militia to invade Virginia and free the prisoners, but Virginia courts finally released the prisoners on their own recognizance, without resolving the jurisdiction question.