A few years back, two of the girls and I spent an enjoyable afternoon touring “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad – the Levi Coffin House in Fountain City, Indiana.
The house is easy to find, right on the main street of town. There is ample parking at the side and the admission is very reasonable at $2 per adult and $1 per child. I was very impressed with the tour, which lasted two hours (and this is not a large house)! When our guide asked for questions, no one had any – probably because she was so thorough.
Here is some of what we learned. Levi Coffin moved to Fountain City (known at the time as Newport) in 1926 and had the house built in 1839. He moved in with his wife Catharine (called Aunt Kate because of her gentle way with children) and their six children. They were Quakers and as such were opposed to slavery, as were many of the other Quakers in town. The house became a major stopping point for slaves fleeing north to freedom.
In the years to Coffins lived there, none of the 2,000 slaves passing through their home were even captured, to Levi’s knowledge. The house was known as “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad. Slaves that were being actively searched for stayed only a night or two, while those who were not often lived quietly in the home with the family for a little while.
The house features some interesting hiding places for slaves such as a long passage behind a slanted ceiling in an upstairs bedroom. Up to 17 slaves at a time stayed in the low passage, which seemed incredible as our tour group stood fanning ourselves and perspiring as we stood in the bedroom itself on a hot summer day. A small door leading to the passage was covered by the headboard of a bed at that time.
In the cellar, there is a well which is believed to have had access to a spring, which would have helped the family get plenty of water for their “visitors” without igniting undue curiosity from neighbors wondering why so much was needed. The spring also cooled the small cellar, allowing for a fairly large refrigerated area to store additional food.
Levi, who at various times in his life was a teacher and a merchant, had high standing in the community and perhaps because of this, his house was never searched for slaves by authorities. In his writings, he told of his belief that it was always safe to do what was right. He owned a store in town and it is said that one slave had himself shipped to Levi at the store in a wooden box.
The Coffins moved to Cincinnati in 1847 where they continued helping slaves escape. Their Indiana house was owned by several different families, and one turned it into a hotel, adding on a back section. In 1967 the state of Indiana purchased the house and volunteers began the work of restoring the house to the way it was in the 1840s. The house itself is now close to original, although none of the original furnishings remain. The furnishings are all accurate to the period, however, and the volunteer staff pays amazing attention to detail. For instance, when wondering what fabric to use for the curtains, the staff discovered in notes that Levi had expressed a particular liking for a type of checked fabric he sold in his store. Volunteers obtained some of this type fabric and made curtains from it.
When Levi Coffin died in 1877, he had some black men as pallbearers, something that would not have normally been done by a white man of that era.
You will enjoy an afternoon here, as you stand in this small house and imagine all the people who have passed through this spot on their way to a better life.