How does a town of fewer than 800 people relate to its place in history as home to the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad?
In Fountain City, Indiana, it’s a respectful acknowledgment of that history and a good working relationship with the people who keep that history alive.
Fountain City, in Wayne County near the Ohio state line, is home to the Levi and Catharine Coffin House, a two-building historical and interpretive center that communicates, to visitors, the history of the Coffins, who for 20 years in the mid-1800s provided shelter and a way station to more than 1,000 freedom seekers, enslaved people who fled the south – primarily from and through Kentucky – and sought freedom and new lives in the north.
The Coffins took freedom seekers into their home, a two-story Federal-style brick house built in 1839, fed and clothed them, and helped arrange transportation – sometimes in a wagon with a false floor – north. The Coffins were aided by other members of their Quaker abolitionist community, which was then known as Newport. Slavery was outlawed in Indiana, but helping a person escape slavery was a crime punishable by fines that were intended to financially ruin anyone who tried to help.
The Coffin House site, consisting of the original Coffin home and a recently built interpretive center, is part of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites system.
There’s a historical marker from the state out front along U.S. 27, and the house – with contemporary-to-the-Coffins furniture inside – and sleek, modern interpretive center next door is a testament to the courage of the Coffins, who after living in then-Newport moved to Cincinnati and continued their good work.
My visit on Juneteenth this year, on the holiday celebrating the date in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas learned of their emancipation, was a quiet one that belied the impact of the Levi and Catharine Coffin House.
Although Covid has played havoc with attendance, the year following the December 2016 opening of the interpretive center brought 10,000 visitors, said Joanna Hahn, central regional manager for the facility.
“Once the interpretive center got built, that put Fountain City on the map,” said Betty Voit of the Wayne County Convention & Tourism Bureau.
Steve Martin, a Wayne County historian, said in an interview that it can be hard to gauge how Fountain City feels about its history.
“My guess is that some know of the history and some take it for granted,” Martin said. “Perhaps because they live there and are used to what PR there is.”
‘They’ve Heard of the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad’
Levi and Catharine Coffin lived in Indiana from 1826 to 1847, having relocated from North Carolina. They began helping enslaved people journey north out of slave states almost immediately. Levi Coffin estimated they helped as many as 100 people a year, and various sources say the Coffins helped from 1,000 to 3,500 people considering both their time in Indiana and their time in Ohio. While in the Buckeye State, the Coffins, who were in the dry goods business, ran a warehouse and business offering dry goods that were produced by free labor.
For his efforts, Levi Coffin became known as “president” of the Underground Railroad.
The Coffin House in Fountain City, two stories and a basement of big rooms and narrow, shallow stairs, stands as a vivid testament to the danger for the Coffins, their children, and especially the people seeking freedom.
If bounty hunters pursuing freedom seekers came to the house, the Coffins would delay the men, sometimes by demanding to see arrest warrants, until the people they were sheltering could be moved out and away from town.
(Newport was renamed Fountain City in 1878; there was another town called Newport in Indiana.)
Tours of the Coffin House, which was restored in the 1960s, show what life was like in the mid-19th century but more importantly show that while the Coffins were well-equipped to help freedom seekers, they had reason to worry that they could get in trouble with the law for their abolitionist practices. They made the commitment to help regardless of that risk.
Voit said tourism in Wayne County and in Fountain City in particular benefit from the Coffins’ history.
“When people come to the welcome center, they’ve heard about the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad,” she said. “If not, we promote it as an attraction.”
Fountain City does boast other historic architecture, the Richmond/Wayne County tourism bureau noted.
“The styles of residential, commercial, and public buildings include Federal, Italianate, Queen Anne, Classical Revival, and Bungalow. Walking through Fountain City is rather like flipping through an encyclopedia of American architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Fountain City shows off those architectural styles during the annual Levi Coffin Days, next held beginning Sept. 17, 2022. During the festivities, vendors, food, performances and a parade are planned.
Strong Bond Between Center and Town
The Coffin House has been named by the Smithsonian magazine as one of the top 10 museums to visit, Hahn noted. “To make a list like that, when you’re being compared to museums around the world, that’s something,” she said.
Hahn said the Coffin House’s relationship with the town of Fountain City was an important one and the bond between the center and town was strong.
“We needed a good relationship with the town,” she said. “During the building of the center, we were doing construction on a busy highway.” A big part of the relationship is because of the local Quaker Friends group, “the local face and conduit and communication. We had that going for us.”
“We knew very early on for this to be successful we needed buy-in from the town and residents, so our relationship has been good.,” Hahn said. “Our goal is to be good stewards with our community, in those relationships and dialogue. We’re a small site in a small town.”
Fountain City has the same challenges as many small towns, Martin said: Offering a good reason for people to visit and move there.
“Sadly, other than the Coffin House, there’s not much else there as a draw,” he said. “I’d like to think of something to help them, but nothing comes. If it didn’t have the Coffin House, it would be a nondescript, eye-blink in passing of a town. It’s a tough task for a town of that size.”
But Fountain City residents have a lot to be proud of in the Coffin House and its history, Martin added.
“I think it’s probably a good thing regardless of size, to have something to be proud of like that.”
Keith Roysdon is a lifelong writer who (mostly) retired from the newspaper business to focus on freelance articles for news and pop culture websites. He is the co-author of three true crime books for History Press with a fourth to be published in summer 2023. He also writes fiction, and his crime novel “Seven Angels,” set in a small town in Tennessee, won the 2021 Hugh Holton Award for Best Unpublished Novel from the Mystery Writers of American Midwest.