Place  /  Book Excerpt

The Heroes of Ripley, Ohio

From Underground Railroad conductors who risked everything to present-day residents who show kindness to travelers.

In an earlier Ohio crossing in 1844, Calvin Fairbanks, a young seminarian from Oberlin, was on the ferry to Ripley. He noticed a man crossing in a skiff and hailed him.

“Mister, are you a Kentuckian?”

The man replied that he was. Pointing to Ripley, Fairbanks asked, “Well, what kind of place is this?”

“It is a black, dirty, abolition hole, sir.”

Fairbanks asked the man to show him the homes of abolitionists. He pointed to a red brick farmhouse on a bluff above the town. “Dr. Rankin occupies the one on the hill.”

John Fee was not the only one driven out of Kentucky by pro-slavery forces. John Rankin was a minister in the eastern part of the state but was quickly disabused of the notion that he could preach to the enslaved. He moved across the river to Ripley, where the local Presbyterian church had invited him to serve as pastor. He would ultimately build the house on the hill, which still stands today, gazing out over the river.

I checked into the bed and breakfast in Ripley but didn’t stay long. From the riverside, I climbed the stone staircase up to the ridge above town. The stairs are known as the Hundred Steps to Freedom, and at the summit sits the Rankin House, a National Historic Landmark. I turned to see the same dramatic view of the seven bends of the Ohio that John Rankin had looked upon each night. The flinty-eyed preacher would scan the dark hills across the river for men on horseback and would light the lantern in the window if the passage appeared safe. According to his autobiography, he and his family assisted about 2,000 freedom seekers on their way north. The guide inside the Rankin House on this day was an earnest young high school girl with ties to the past. Her great-great grandfather had been enslaved.

The Rankins made it a habit to leave the door unlocked and a fire going at night in case there were visitors. In the small hours one winter evening, Rankin found a Black woman and her baby huddled by the fire trying to dry off. As they fed her and gave her dry clothes, she told her story. She had escaped across the frozen Ohio River, pursued by slave hunters until she ran out on the soft ice. She fell through several times, managing to keep her baby out of the water and using a fence rail that she carried to climb out. Somehow she made it across and up the hundred steps to the Rankin House. Rankin’s family helped her – like many others before and after – on her way to Canada.