The Underground Railroad Exhibit
Escaping from slavery is as old as slavery itself. And slavery is as old as mankind. In Ashtabula County in the years prior to the end of the Civil War, the Underground Railroad kept fugitive slaves safe from harm. As early as 1813, the county’s anti-slavery attitude was expressed by Alba Coleman of Andover. He refused to use sugar because it was harvested by slaves. In 1828, our first sheriff, Quintas Atkins, continued that philosophy and committment by opening the Jefferson Inn, known in Underground Railroad code as “Anno Mundi,” Latin for “in the year of the world.”
Ashtabula County had over thirty known Underground Railroad stations. or safehouses, and many more conductors. Nearly two-thirds of those sites still stand today. The Hubbard House, known as Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard and The Great Emporium, is the only Ohio UGRR terminus, or endpoint, open to the public. At the Hubbard House, there is a large map showing all of the currently known sites.
Ashtabula County was instrumental in John Brown’s famous attack on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Brown stored many of his weapons at the King and Brothers cabinet shop in Cherry Valley following the aftermath of Bloody Kansas. He later shipped them to the Kennedy farm at Harper’s Ferry. Of the nineteen men who charged the arsenal with John Brown, Sr., thirteen were from Ashtabula County. Dangerfield Newby was the first of Brown’s followers to fall mortally wounded. A former runaway slave from a Virginia plantation, he lived in Dorset and worked as a conductor on the UGRR in Ashtabula County. He had left his wife and seven children behind on the plantation. He hoped that overthrowing the Federal arsenal would be the first step toward his family’s, and all families’, freedom.
The importance of spirituals is also discussed in the exhibit. Songs were used to convey secret messages from one slave to another – it was forbidden for one slave to talk to another or for slaves to gather together, except under the strict supervision of the slave owners. The double meanings of the spirituals gave slaves a method of communicating without jeopardizing themselves.
Through song they learned how to prepare to run away and what to do once they started journey North. The most famous of these is “Follow The “Drinkin’ Gourd.” The song tells slaves how to escape, what to do along the way, and who to look to for help. The “Drinkin’ Gourd” is the Big Dipper. The front two stars of the Big Dipper point to the North Star in the handle of the Little Dipper. By following the Drinkin’ Gourd, fugitive slaves knew they were on the right path to freedom.
The Civil War – Americana Collection
Viewing military items can he very impersonal until one takes the time to consider the brave men of the Union and Confederate Armies who owned these pieces. Who wore this hat? Did he have a wife and children? What color were his eyes? Was he a farmer, a merchant, a lawyer? What did his friends call him? When he drank from that canteen, did it hold his last sip of water before he died? Did the surgeon who used the amputation kit end up a fatality himself? What was the drummer of the 140th PA Volunteers thinking as he marched into battle? Did any of these men ever see their loved ones again?
Soldiers on both sides fought, were maimed, and died for a cause they each held sacred. Looking at the exhibit, visitors are reminded that this war, this not-so Civil War between the States pitted brother against brother, father against son, and claimed more lives than WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam combined.
Artifacts in this exhibit include pieces from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Also on display are photographs and memorabilia of our area at the turn of the 20th century. There is a small display of many pieces from the former Hotel Ashtabula.
There is special exhibit on the Great Ashtabula Train Bridge Disaster of 1876, the worst train bridge disaster in US history. Over 91 people perished, including the great Peter Paul Bliss, who had coined the phrase “gospel music.”
Bliss worked with Ira Sankey, the well-known song leader for Reverend D.L. Moody, the man who created the Moody Bible Institute. Legend has it that Bliss was able to free himself from the burning wreckage – his wife was not. He returned to the flaming car to rescue her. Unable to free her, he waited with her while the inferno engulfed them both.
There are several items on display that were recovered from the disaster