The Levi and Catharine Coffin House in Fountain City, Ind., may seem off the beaten path for Civil War aficionados, but that was not the case for thousands of slaves in antebellum America, for whom it was an incredible symbol of hope, aptly labeled the “Grand Central Station”. of the Underground Railroad” in the 1840s. Today, the restored house and its barn are part of the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site, which also includes an outstanding interpretive center that helps put into perspective the vital role the Coffin family played during the build-up to the Civil War.
Originally from North Carolina, Levi Coffin and his wife, Catharine, were Quakers who strongly opposed slavery and eventually moved to Indiana, where they would live for 20 years in what was then known as of Newport. The small town of Fountain City is not far from the Indiana-Ohio border in Wayne County, about 93 miles northeast of Indianapolis via Interstate 70.
Abolitionist and slavery themes are present as soon as you enter the interpretation centre. A dual purpose timeline on the first floor provides insight into the history of slavery and the law and also examines the rich history of the Coffin family. One of the first things you’ll see is a telling quote from Levi: “I date my conversion to abolitionism from an incident that happened when I was about seven years old. It made a deep and lasting impression on my mind and created that horror of the cruelties of slavery which has been the motive of so much of my life.
Despite the peril, Levi and Catharine were fully committed to helping freedom seekers get to Canada. They would help free over 1,000 freedom seekers while residing in Newport.
The second floor of the Interpretation Center has a self-guided exhibition gallery titled “Souls Seeking Safety,” where the challenge of telling such a rich story in a relatively small space is more than met. The gallery’s photographs, graphics, text, and interactive elements blend together seamlessly for an enriching experience.
Interactives take both a physical and passive approach. Visitors, for example, learn the story of Henry “Box” Brown by lifting the lid of a reproduction of the crate Brown used to ship himself to freedom, a 27-hour journey. Another exhibit focuses on Catharine’s sewing circle as its members discuss abolitionism. The most powerful interactive, however, is a cutaway reproduction of a false bottom wagon used to ferry freedom seekers to and from the Coffin House. By placing your head in the hidden rider space, you can hear road noises, including a conversation between a wagon driver and a bounty hunter.
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Another cool feature is an illuminated map showing key cities and the confluence of three major roads near the Coffin House that freedom seekers used to cross the Ohio River: Cincinnati, Ohio; Jeffersonville, Ind., and Madison, Ind. Nearby Quaker settlements providing additional support are indicated.
As is the case with many such home tours, the focus is on the architecture and furnishings of Coffin House. Spaces and voids tell a key story, as they provided refuge for freedom seekers – spaces in which they could hide, eat, sleep, and dream of freedom until the next leg of their journey. Notably, visitors enter the house through a side door, the same threshold that freedom seekers crossed in the 19th century.
The furniture is mostly period. The first floor has a kitchen, guest bedroom and sewing room where Catharine’s sewing circle made clothes for people seeking freedom. The kitchen area has a discreet curved staircase that allows visitors access to an upstairs bedroom under the eaves. The short door in the shortest wall of the room gives access to an attic, space that can accommodate up to 14 freedom seekers. Visitors can look through the door to see this precarious hiding place.
The Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site tours are a powerful experience well worth your time. To date, reservations are required for tours and numbers are limited due to pandemic guidelines.
The interpretive center is ADA compliant; however, the Coffin House poses challenges for visitors with limited mobility. Staff strive to provide full access to the house, offering visitors with reduced mobility alternative ways to access certain rooms, including a wider alternative staircase leading to the upper floor and alternative entrances to the basement. -floor.
For those confined to wheelchairs, the first floor is easily accessible. Upon request, staff will provide visitors with photographs or a link to a virtual tour exploring the second floor.
To learn more about the Levi and Catharine Coffin House State Historic Site, visit indianamuseum.org/historic-sites/levi-catharine-coffin-house.