Hidden doors and secret passwords seem too melodramatic for the lovely home of a prominent businessman.
In the 1840s and ’50s though, abolitionist Levi Coffin and his family opened their home in Newport, Indiana to thousands of runaway slaves.
The Coffin family, like-minded Friends, and other members of the Newport community helped many fugitives since three of the main paths of the Underground Railroad converged in the area.
Although they are not Amish, members of the Religious Society of Friends (“Quakers”) seemed to fill a similar niche in American society in the 1800s. The Friends dressed simply, spoke plainly, sought to keep separate from worldly society, and strongly believed in peace and equality.
Like many other Quaker families, the Coffins migrated from New Garden, North Carolina, to the new settlement in the new free state of Indiana. A large Quaker community developed in east central Indiana and western Ohio.
Later in the 19th century, many Friends and abolitionists from all backgrounds defied the federal laws that made it a crime to help runaway slaves. They formed a secret network of trusted contacts, back roads, and safe houses.
It’s hard to imagine such intrigue in my old hometown of Fountain City (formerly Newport). I often wonder what it would have been like to live in Newport back in those days.
The Coffin family home is restored to its original 1840s style and is open to the public from May to November. It is now part of the Indiana State Museum system. I visited many times as a child, as my grandmother was one of the volunteer tour guides. Later, I set my historical romance novella, New Garden’s Crossroads at the house.
A tour of the Coffin House makes a good afternoon outing. As you go through the house, notice the multiple exits from every room. Guides have speculated that fugitives could be quickly hidden that way. Look for the hidden door behind the bedsteads in an upstairs bedroom. Check out the false bottom in one of the wagons in the barn.
A broader view of the Underground Railroad can be found at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, about an hour and a half southeast of Indianapolis. My family and I allowed about three hours but the Freedom Center is well worth more time.
Ann E. Schrock’s writing career began as a general assignment reporter for several Indiana newspapers. She became interested in fiction after she and her husband started their family. New Garden’s Crossroads is one of the novellas in Barbour Publishing’s collection, The Quakers of New Garden. The story will be included in Barbour’s American Dream Collection upcoming in 2015. In addition to writing, Schrock enjoys working on the family farm with her husband and three children.