Underground Railroad - Erie County Ohio Historical SocietyTHE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD WALKING TOUR
Slaves in Field, ca. 1855. Image courtesy of History.com
The Underground Railroad Tour was developed based on a tour originally created for the Lake Erie Shores and Islands Visitors Bureau by the Sandusky Underground Railroad Education Center with the assistance of the Sandusky Old House Guild. Research assistance was provided by Eden Valley Enterprises, Elaine Lawson, and the late Janet Senne, a past president of the Erie County Historical Society.
Ohio History recognized the important role that Erie County, as well as all of Ohio, played in the Underground Railroad. Their new addition includes the Follett House as stop no. 14 of important URR sites in Ohio https://ohio.org/home/ugrrtrail/ohio-historical-underground-railroad-trail.

While gazing across Sandusky Bay at a world class amusement park or watching pleasure craft glide serenely across the water while standing in Sandusky’s Facer Park, we easily forget the active role the city’s waterfront played in the operation of the Underground Railroad well over a century and a half earlier.

With the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1787, which condoned slavery, the institution and its accompanying controversy escalated until civil war erupted in 1861. The rapid expansion of cotton in the Gulf States coupled with the successful production of crops like sugar required a never ending supply of labor to thrive. As cotton fields stretched westward so did the insatiable demand for slave labor. Escalating cotton prices in turn drove up the cost of labor, with the price of prime field hands easily exceeding $1000 by the Civil War.

Eastern slaveholders in states such as Virginia and Kentucky callously sold their slaves to traders supplying the western markets. While the harsh treatment of enslaved peoples and the despicable practices they endured are well documented, the heart-wrenching practice of tearing families apart is often overlooked and served as primary force chasing people to freedom.

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Geography, demographics, and a rapidly developing transportation system precipitated Ohio’s prominent role within the Underground Railroad. Ohio’s southern river boundary of 451 miles established the longest natural boundary between free and slave soil. Once the river was crossed freedom seekers funneled to lake port cities such as Cleveland and Sandusky, no farther than 250 miles away at its most distant point within the state on the Ohio River. A short 40 mile voyage across Lake Erie deposited fugitives in Canada where slavery had been outlawed by Great Britain since 1833.


Demographics also played a critical role in northern Ohio’s attraction. Land granted to Revolutionary War veterans from New England in the area known as the Firelands drew settlers from a region of the young country who sympathized with the plight of the slave. Many willingly provided food and shelter to fugitives while secluding them despite the risks. A number of dedicated men also piloted craft carrying freedom seekers across the lake.

This sentiment also encouraged both free and escaped slaves to settle in the area. Though receiving less recognition than their white counterparts, residents of African-American descent as Rev. Thomas Holland Boston, worked tirelessly at greater risk with the Underground Railroad.

We often hear that the Underground Railroad was not a railroad but an intricate network of operatives directing fugitives from station to station. However, by the early 1850’s Sandusky was regularly serviced by railway lines from the south which did indeed whisk a number of fugitives to Sandusky’s mile long waterfront to board vessels for freedom.


Harriet Tubman

Over the years documentation has been uncovered confirming Sandusky’s prominence during that volatile period. Yet even in the decade leading up to the Civil War Sandusky’s role was highly recognized. Harriet Beecher Stowe wove the city into her widely popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin storyline, released in 1852.

With a little imagination one can almost visualize the dramatic events from the past while standing in Facer Park. There’s the real Eliza dressed as a male holding the hand of her young son attired in girl’s clothing boarding the Arrow for the voyage to freedom. Or perhaps we see Josiah Henson with his family, believed to be Stowe’s model for her lead character Tom, waiting nervously for the rowboat west of town to transport them to a larger vessel, the Commerce, to carry them safely to Canada.

We squint to catch a glimpse of Tice Davids in 1831 pausing briefly in Sandusky after leaving his perplexed owner scratching his head in the riverfront town of Ripley and mumbling, It’s as if he found some road underground and totally disappeared. Many attribute that event to the unofficial naming of the Underground Railroad.

Looking northward we see the armada of ships over the years churning through the Sandusky Bay toward the channel leading to Lake Erie. There’s the Walk-in-the-Water, United States, Bay City, and the Mayflower.

Returning our focus to the mainland we see a fugitive sneak into C. C. Keech’s shop several store front’s to our east, where the hat maker and furrier provided temporary employment for escaped slaves. We also hear stories of Sanduskian Henry Merry providing work as wood cutters on his property south of town.

We encounter carriage maker George Reynolds, of mixed American Indian and African American descent, whose name surfaces frequently in Sandusky’s Underground Railroad lore. Reynolds maintained close ties with John Brown but resisted Brown’s pleas to join the ill-fated assault in Harpers Ferry.

Several blocks from the waterfront we pass the duplex on Lawrence Street where the Irvine brothers, John and Samuel live. In 1855 they received a coffin shipped to them in the suffocating heat of the summer via railroad. Fortunately they revived the man inside and within several days sent him to Canada. John’s namesake son fought with John Brown in Bloody Kansas.

In front of the Sloane House we recall an earlier occupant of the dwelling, Rush Sloane. The lawyer intervened in the 1852 attempt to return seven captured slaves to Kentucky. In a highly publicized court case in 1854, Sloane was convicted of breaking the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and was fined $3000 plus court costs. In 1847 attorney Francis Parish was prosecuted under the 1793 Fugitive Slave law and fined $1000.

Several blocks to the north, we overhear a conversation between the Folletts at their home on the corner of East Adams and Wayne Streets. Oran, a well-respected Sanduskian and partner in the firm that published the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates, is admonishing his wife, Eliza, for harboring fugitives. He represents the body of abolitionists who vehemently oppose slavery but feel the institution should be dissolved through the orderly legal process. Maintaining the long recognized privilege of getting in the last word, Mrs. Follett curtly rebuts, But husband, there is a higher law than man’s!

Walking Tour Directions

Because the sites on the Underground Railroad Walk are spread over a fairly wide area, some visitors may choose to drive to the sites that interest them.

Stop 1 – Getting here and getting started

Park in the Erie County Parking Garage – NW Corner of Columbus and W. Washington Row. Head south on Columbus Ave. to West Washington Row. Head west on Washington Row to:

Beecher House - Erie County Ohio Historical Society

215 w. Washington Row

Beecher represented Benjamin Johnson, a fugitive slave who arrived in Sandusky during the 1830’s. Beecher won Johnson’s freedom by arguing that Johnson was not the property of the plaintiff because the purchase was made in Ohio, which was a free state. Johnson then became a free resident of Sandusky. Harriet Beecher Stow wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Learn More

Beatty Church - Erie County Ohio Historical Society

SE corner of Washington & Jackson Sts.

A person looking in a south easterly direction from the northeast corner of Jackson and West Washington St. anytime during the latter half of the 19th century would have seen the old Beatty Church which stood just northwest of the courthouse. Learn More

Stop 2

Continue west on West Washington Row and cross Jackson St. Turn left and then take an immediate right heading west on West Washington St. to Decatur St. Turn left to:
Second Baptist Church - Erie County Ohio Historical Society
One of the most active stations in the Sandusky Underground Railroad network is the Second Baptist Church. It was founded as Zion Baptist Church in 1849 by a group of former slaves and freeborn Blacks. Just prior to the Civil War, the church was organized at its present site at 315 Decatur Street under the name First Regular Anti-Slavery Baptist Church. Learn More


John And Samuel Irvine House - Erie County Ohio Historical Society

Two brothers, the Irvines, lived in the double house at 320-322 Lawrence Street. John Irvine was a master builder. Sam R. Irvine was a grocer. Their work on the Sandusky Underground Railroad was underscored by Sloane. Learn More

Stop 3

Continue south on Decatur to Adams St. Walk east on Adams Street to:
Follett House Museum - Erie County Ohio Historical Society

Oran Follett, who was the publisher of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, resided at 404 Wayne Street. Eliza, Oran’s second wife, was very sympathetic to escaping slaves. According to Eliza’s granddaughter, “No one knows how many slaves she concealed in the basement…or out in the woodshed. She warmed, fed and clothed them, then aided them in their escape across Lake Erie to Canada.” Learn More


Joseph M. Root House - Erie County Ohio Historical Society
Joseph Root was a radical abolitionist, an attorney, mayor of Sandusky, and later a state senator and U.S. Congressman. Northern whites who thought slavery should be abolished and who assisted runaways were certainly in the minority. Learn More

Henry Merry House - Erie County Ohio Historical Society
Henry Merry lived in the house at 330 E. Adams Street. Merry was a builder who often employed those who had escaped from slavery until they were able to head to Canada. Fugitives from slavery faced life threatening challenges from slave owners, slavecatchers, hostile Northerners, and the elements. Learn More

Rush R. Sloane House - Erie County Ohio Historical Society

The leaders in Sandusky’s Underground Railroad movement were freeborn black Sanduskians. In fact, communities of free blacks across the United States were the most powerful force in aiding those escaping from slavery. Learn More

Stop 4

Continue walking east and turn north on Franklin St. to E. Washington St. Turn right (east) to:

George Barney House - Erie County Ohio Historical SocietyGEORGE BARNEY HOUSE – 422 E. WASHINGTON ST.
George Barney was born in 1814 at Sandy Hill, N.Y. In 1842 he moved to Milan, Ohio where he was in the mercantile business. In 1855 George and his wife Caroline moved to Sandusky. Three years later they purchased their home at 422 E. Washington Street at sheriff’s sale. Learn More

Captain Thomas McGee House - Erie County Ohio Historical SocietyCAPTAIN THOMAS MCGEE HOUSE – 536 E. WASHINGTON ST.
Sandusky was as important as the ports of Toledo, Ashtabula, and Cleveland for Underground Railroad travel. Captain Thomas McGee, who lived in the house on your right, was a master of several sloops and schooners on Lake Erie. Learn More

Stop 5

Cross E. Washington and head west on south side of East Washington St. to Hancock St. Turn right (south) to Facer Park

Facer Park - Erie County Ohio Historical SocietyFACER PARK – SOUTH SIDE OF HANCOCK & WATER STS.
In 2005, a group of young civic leaders in Sandusky initiated an effort to recognize the city’s role in the Underground Railroad. Facer Park, on the city’s waterfront, was chosen as the location for a sculpture and related educational displays. Over 50 local organizations, businesses and individuals were involved with the project. The park was dedicated on October 9, 2007. Created by local artist Susan Schultz, the sculpture is a symbolic representation of fearless people escaping the chains of slavery. Learn More

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN – A decade before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad in Sandusky was a secret everybody knew.

JOSIAH HENSON – Josiah Henson explains in his autobiography how he and his family escapes passing through the area a few miles to the west of Sandusky, and getting on a ship in Sandusky Bay.

FRANCIS DRAKE PARISH – Francis Drake Parish was born in Upstate New York in Ontario County in 1796.

SANDUSKY DOCKS – In the 1850’s the increase in railroad service enabled more fugitives to take actual trains to Sandusky where they transferred to steamships.

CONFEDERATE PRISON – From 1862 to 1865, the United States operated a prison for Confederate officers on Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay, only about two miles from downtown Sandusky.
Learn More

Stop 6

Head west on Water St. to:
CC Keech Warehouse - Erie County Ohio Historical Society

Christopher Columbus Keech came to Sandusky from Batavia, New York in 1847. He was trained as a hatter and established a hat store on the south side of Water Street east of Columbus Avenue. Keech advertised in the 1855 Sandusky Directory as a “wholesale and retail dealer in hats, caps, furs, buffalo robes, mittens, buckskin and woolen gloves.” Learn More