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Been There! Southwestern Ohio
Back to Travel: Upper Midwest


Southwestern Ohio was a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity, and Ripley was condemned by pro-slavers as "the black hole of abolitionism." Located within the old Northwest Territory at the southern edge of the Virginia Military District, these lands had been set aside in lieu of payment to Virginia's Revolutionary War veterans. According to John P. Parker, "these wild lands were the only place where the Virginia or Southern masters could take their slaves and free them, without any liability to themselves." Fugitive slaves found shelter and aid in Ripley and two of those homes - The John Parker House and the John Rankin House - are open to the public and interpret the antislavery era.

You can learn more by reading Ann Hagedorn's Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Order at An Underground Railroad Tour Guide is available free from the Brown County Department of Economic Development, 937-378-1970 or visit

Be sure to cross the Ohio River to Maysville Kentucky where you'll find additional sites including the National Underground Railroad Museum and Old Washington. You can cross via the Simon Kenton Bridge off US 52, but I recommend taking the Augusta Ferry, which has been operated at this site since 1798. The landing on the Ohio side is about 2 miles west of Higginsport. The Ferry operates daily 8-8 (weather permitting) with no set schedule. In 2006 the cost was $5 per car.

You might also be interested in sites nearby in Clermont County, Ohio.


John P. Parker Home
Corner of Sycamore and Front St
Far western edge of town just off US 52 - turn toward the river 

Born a slave in 1827, most likely the son of his master, John P. Parker learned several trades which enabled him to earn enough money to purchase his freedom by the age of 18. He first moved to the Cincinnati area, where he met and married his wife, but by 1849 he had relocated to Ripley where he established a foundry which employed both black and white workers. He was also an inventor who received several patents, and was awarded a bronze medal for his tobacco press at the 1888 Ohio Valley Centennial Exposition.

But the primary motivation for his move to Ripley was to help rescue slaves fleeing to freedom. From his prime location on the Ohio River, he not only helped slaves who had made it across the river, but rowed across to the southern shore in search of them, and is credited with many daring rescues.

Parker had told his life story to a journalist in the early 1880's, but the manuscript was gathering dust in the Duke University Archives until the 1990's when it was finally published as His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker. NY: Norton, 1996. Order at There is also a digital version available at the Duke University website.

His home in Ripley had stood empty since the early 1900's and was pretty much in shambles by the time his autobiography was published. Fortunately, it was dedicated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1997 and much of it has been restored, though the interior exhibits are still being developed. Trained docents provide tours during regular visiting hours, or by appointment.



Interior displays are currently under development, and include facsimiles of some of Parker's inventions, narratives covering the many facets of Parker's life from childhood to his foundry endeavors, etc. So at present, the bulk of your tour is seeing the house itself and hearing about Parker's life, the restoration project, etc from the docent.

Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable docent this day was Peggy Mills Warner, a descendent of the Gist Slave Settlement which was founded in 1819 when, as specified in his will, the slaves of Samuel Gist were freed and relocated to land purchased for their use. (There is a reunion of descendants each year on the third Saturday in July. More information can be obtained from Ms. Mills Warner by calling 937-446-3948. Read more.)

Here's a shot of the restored border in the front room, overlooking the river. On the left you can see a remaining example of the original border which was used for the reconstruction. For the time period and the area, such quality would indicate that the home's owner was a relatively affluent person.

In the lower right corner you can see one of Parker's original patent stencils. 




There is no known photograph of John P. Parker, but this display showed images and documents relating to his children, all of whom were college educated and eventually moved out of the area.


A view from the east side of the house. It's easy to imagine Parker looking across the Ohio River at night, watching for a signal from a fugitive slave in need of his help.

 John Rankin House

Born in 1793 in eastern Tennessee, as an adult John Rankin moved his family to the free state of Ohio and built a house on Liberty Hill in 1825. With its proximity to the river and its owner's fierce opposition to slavery, the Rankin home became a stopping point on the Underground Railroad, and his family hid as many as 12 fugitive slaves at one time.

As a writer and preacher, Rankin inspired others in the movement, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, who heard him tell the story of a woman who fled across the frozen Ohio carrying her children, and was saved when the ice broke before the bounty hunters could reach her.

The Rankin House State Memorial interprets the work of Rankin and Ohio's contribution to the antislavery movement. It stands on the hill almost directly above the John Parker House.


 How To find the Rankin House

The road to the Rankin House is at the far western edge of Ripley. The sign is in the photo by the white car...unfortunately, by the time you see the sign (IF you see it) you've already passed it!

The white car here is heading west out of Ripley on US 52, the red van is on Second Street, which is where you need to be.

Coming from the West on US 52 - As soon as you see the big Welcome to Ripley sign, make an immediate hairpin left, then make an immediate right up the hill and follow the signs.

Coming from the East: Follow US 52/Second Street through the town to the western edge. At this intersection, Second Street veers right up the hill. Follow Second Street when US 52 veers left, then make an immediate right to go up the hill.




 Fugitive slaves used this "Freedom Stairway" to climb the hill to Rankin's House. The wooden portion has been restored, with nameplates of donors on each step. It's difficult to find where they start at the bottom, so I'd suggest that you first walk down, then back up. Plan 5-10 minutes down, and twice that back up.

   An archeological dig to the west of the house is uncovering outbuildings on the site, and is part of the docent's interpretation.

Clermont County

 New Richmond, Ohio
Former Residence of Reverend George C. Light, 401 Front St 

 This is one of 33 Underground Railroad and Abolitionist sites on the Clermont County Underground Railroad Freedom Trail. Each site is marked by a green sign like the one you see hanging under the marquee to the right. The trail is outlined in a brochure with maps and historical summations. You'll find a downloadable brochure of the Freedom Trail at their website under the menu item Attractions & Events, or call 800-796-4282 to request a copy. Be sure to tell them you want the full annotated Freedom Trail Driving Tour Brochure, not just the map of sites.

Rev. Light (1785-1860) was a Methodist minister and agent of the American Colonization Society, formed around 1817 to repatriate freed slaves to settlements in Africa. The movement was controversial; to some, it was a black nationalist movement which presumed free blacks could never be treated fairly in the US and should be provided the opportunity to build their own nations in their ancestral homeland. But some black leaders - including Frederick Douglass - believed African Americans should remain here and fight to build an equal and just society, and they suspected the colonization movement was more about removing black people from the Americas and less about providing better opportunities for freed slaves.

Either way, in the early 1820's the Society founded the settlement of Monrovia in West Africa, which in 1847 became Liberia. In all, about 15,000 freed slaves moved to Africa.