By Terri Weeks
Posted On: Oct 3, 2014
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of those classic books that I had been wanting to read for years. After a visit to the John Rankin House Historic Site with my kids, I was inspired to finally pick it up and read it. I learned during our visit that the character Eliza was based on a real person—a runaway slave who crossed the icy Ohio River with a young child in her arms after learning that her child was going to be sold. She spent the night with Underground Railroad Conductor John Rankin and his family in their home at the top of a steep hill in Ripley, Ohio.
Ripley had a strong anti-slavery presence and was known as “that abolitionist hellhole” by Confederate officers during the Civil War. Over 2,000 escaped slaves came through Rev. John Rankin's house, now a National Historic Landmark which is open for tours May through October. The home recently underwent extensive renovations to restore it to how it looked in 1840, so I went back for another visit to see the changes. The home has been furnished and staged as if the Rankin family were living there. In the sitting room, I could almost picture Eliza warming herself by the stove telling the Rankins the story of her escape.
Later, in this same room, Rankin recounted the story to Harriet Beecher Stowe, daughter of Lyman Beecher, president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, also an abolitionist. Eliza’s harrowing experience impressed Harriet so much that she created a character named Eliza in her book, which became the bestselling novel of the 19th century. In fact, you can vist Harriet Beecher Stowe's home in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Much research was done before selecting the furnishings for each room of the Rankin House. A whale oil lamp was placed in front of the window. I learned that whale oil burns brighter than other fuels and the lamp was a beacon for runaway slaves who were told to look for the light in the window at the top of the hill.
The family had nine boys and four girls. The tour includes the upstairs which has one bedroom for the boys and another for the girls. I was amazed that the boys took turns transporting “passengers” to the next stop on the Underground Railroad, which often took all night, then had to attend school the next day and pretend that nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
After my tour of the Rankin House, site manager Betty Campbell generously offered to show me around Ripley. The Ripley Museum houses a portrait of Rev. John Rankin and the Rankin Family Bible. We visited Rankin’s burial site in the cemetery, the site of Rankin’s church, and Red Oak Presbyterian Church which was typically the next stop on the Underground Railroad. A convenient place to stay while exploring the Underground Railroad sites of Ripley is the Signal House Bed & Breakfast. It offers a beautiful view of the Ohio River and is within walking distance of many of the sites.