Conneaut Rails Across Lake Erie

Shadows slipping and sliding down the hill, following the slapping of the waves and the clanging of what? A ship bell? Muted voices float over the water. The slipping shadow materializes into the shape of a young girl. Springing to her feet, she walks the last few yards to the waiting schooner with her head held high and her heart beating in time with the waves. She proudly announces that her name is Ruth, as Captain Calvin Appleby holds out his hand. She takes it, walks up the gangplank and boards the Sultana. Ruth has started the last leg of her journey on the Conneaut Underground Railroad with the destination Canada and freedom.

Ruth symbolizes the many real fugitives who traveled over the maritime section of the Ashtabula County Underground Railroad. Conneaut, Ashtabula, and several of the other Ohio port towns on their way to Canada. Reaching Northern states like Ohio and port cities like Conneaut did not guarantee freedom for fugitive slaves. Slave catchers could and often did track them down and just as often would find willing northern accomplices who would turn in the fugitives for monetary award or simply because they believed that slaves were property instead of human beings deserving free lives of their own.

Hiram Lake and Ralph Wright are not anonymous, and neither is Ralph Wright’s community, South Ridge, later changed to Farnham and at one point in its history rivaled Conneaut in influence and population. The winds of Anti-Slavery shaped and transformed the slavery landscape in Ashtabula County, which had never been uniformly anti or pro slavery. Instead, the county was a mixture of Anti-Slavery, Pro-Slavery, and Neutral principles with its residents attempting to forge their lives through ideological flames and cooling neutrality.

The congregation of the Free Baptist Church stood a firm anti-slavery stance. The General Conference of Free Baptists took place at South Ridge, on October 23, 1839, with about 150 people attending the meeting and its aftermath. Dr. Wm. M. Housely from Kentucky had planned to be ordained as a Free Baptist, but he was rejected because he claimed three slaves and would not grant their right to liberty.

The General Conference extensively debated the slavery question. The church was crowded with diverse men and equally diverse opinions. Some counseled not to give so much light that it put out people’s eyes and injured the causes of both the Free Baptists and the slaves. Judge Moffit of Kelloggsville remarked that he knew Ohio people better than New England ministers and delegates and expressed concern that anti-slavery principles would bring disaster.

Lawyer Lovejoy of Conneaut, brother of Reverend Elijah Lovejoy of Alton, Illinois, spoke passionately for strong measures against slavery, arguing that it was a sin against God and a crime against man. He said that his brother’s blood was crying to slaveholders from the ground and that he would not be a dumb dog when lives were in such peril.

The Free Baptists voted to create a Conneaut Anti-Slavery Society, and the week after the General Conference adjourned, the people passed legislation establishing a preamble and constitution for the Society and began the work of feeding, clothing, and helping fugitive slaves escape to freedom. Free Baptists and citizens at large continued to defy the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Some Northern States had enacted earlier versions of the Fugitive Slave law, passed in 1850, that intensified the risks of helping passengers on the Underground Railroad. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 allowed authorities to arrest runaway slaves anywhere in the United States and return them to their owners. It also stipulated that anyone helping runaway slaves faced fines and jail time.

Despite, the strict stipulations of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Ashtabula Underground Railroad, including the Conneaut stations, continued to operate. As well as Ashtabula, the Conneaut versions of the Railroad had deep ideological roots and dedicated workers, including Captain Calvin Appleby, Reverend Rufus Clark, Hiram Lake, Ralph Wright, and countless anonymous workers.

Ralph Wright of the South Ridge Free Will Baptist Church could claim most of the credit for convincing many members of the larger community to change their pro-slavery views or neutrality to abolitionist principles. Ralph Wright earned the title of “Abolitionist Missionary” by soliciting abolition and slavery informational pamphlets. He would gather his pamphlets in hand and travel from house to house, and because of his impaired vision, his friends, and neighbors out of pity, would read the pamphlets to him. Farmers, mechanics, millers, merchants, ministers, anti and pro slavery people – people from all walks of life would read his pamphlets to please “Uncle Ralph.” Based on their reading of Uncle Ralph’s pamphlets, several of them became Abolitionists.

Often, Ralph Wright would express his desire to see slavery abolished, but would sadly conclude that “the way the government is ordering its course, I do not believe I shall.” Ralph Wright did not witness slavery’s demise in America. He died April 30, 1860, almost a year before the beginning of the Civil War, and he is buried with many of his fellow pioneering citizens in Farnham Cemetery. He did not see the fulfilment of his dream during his lifetime, but he helped lay the Anti-Slavery foundation allowing many former slaves to live out their lives in freedom.

In his younger years, Marshall W. Wright operated as an active conductor in the Underground Railroad. The sheriff had freed one of his passengers, Lewis Clark, from his master on the Lake-Ashtabula County line. According to a memoir by Reverend Rufus Clark, the authorities blocked the Lake County portion of the road so the coach carrying Lewis and his master would be forced to return to the Ashtabula line and enable the sheriff to make the arrest within his limits.

The Conneaut Anti-Slavery Society selected him as a representative to the Ashtabula County Liberty Convention held in Jefferson, Ohio.

In his later years, Marshall became active in Ashtabula County politics, including serving as a marshal and a director of the county infirmary.

Reverend Rufus Clark

Reverend Rufus Clark, pastor of the South Ridge Baptist Church at three different times, harbored fugitive slaves at his house, also the church parsonage, which was located directly north of the church. Conductors on this branch of the Underground Railroad would transport fugitives into Erie County Pennsylvania to the Gould brothers in Springfield Township. Here they were less likely to be confronted by slave catchers or people attempting to prevent them from crossing Lake Erie to


Reverend Clark and later William Siebert recorded the names of some of the fugitive slaves who eloquently pleaded the cause of their people at the organizational meeting of the Conneaut Anti-Slavery Society. Milton Clark had logged just a few years of freedom from Kentucky bondage. John Girley had endured nineteen years of slavery and celebrated nine years of freedom. Garrett Smith of Peterborough, New York sent him to school and John had learned his lessons so well that over a seven-year span, he lectured in nearly every free state in the United States. A Mr. Clarkson had enjoyed only three years of freedom, and Henry P. Riley and his wife observed seven y ears away from slavery. During this time, they attended school in Oberlin for six months and developed their speaking skills to tell their story and the story of their people.

Quakers assigned the name Thomas Clarkson of Albemarle County, Virginia this name because they were afraid slaveholders would capture him if they knew his real identity. During his escape from Albemarle County slaveholders captured him and read papers that the Commonwealth of Virginia issued demanding his return to slavery. Foreseeing the possibility of capture, Thomas had acquired a lead ball fastened to his right wrist which he used as a slingshot to ward off his pursuers who soon allowed him to escape. The eloquence of the former slaves in speaking against the nefarious slavery system and the zeal of their converts helped spread and deepen the Anti-Slavery sentiment in Ashtabula County.

Tried and True Tracks to Freedom

Figurative and sometimes literal dirt and wagon tracks of the Underground Railroad branched out east and west of South Ridge, and people willing to act on their moral convictions aided passengers all along the route. The depots along the Underground Railroad route centered at the homes of Jacob Henton, an elderly Quaker, and his brothers, who lived in Salem in Columbiana County. The fugitives then would go to Honorable Leicester King, who lived in Warren in Trumbull County and then to George Hazelop, a merchant in Gustavus. The homes of Seth Hazes, a Hartford merchant, and Ralph Plumb, Esq. in Vernon were the next stop. Deacon Carpenter and Ansel K. Garlick were the Andover safe havens. In Kelloggsvile Albert Kellogg, Sidney S. Bushnell and Samuel Hayward who later became President of the Conneaut Bank were at the ready to help fugitive and J.W. Wright and Reverend Rufus C. Clark served at South Ridge.

The quality and quantity of pursuit often determined the route that the conductors would assign to the fugitives. If a master hotly pursued the runway slave, conductors would sometimes find it necessary to change from a direct to a roundabout route. If this were the situation, the runways were sent to the houses of J. R. or Stephen Gage in Sheffield, Ira Taft in Kingsville, Jacob Austin in Austinburg, or William Hubbard in Ashtabula. After a period of rest and when the conductors felt it was safe, they were smuggled to Cleveland or Detroit to cross into Canada. If the conductors felt it was safer to send the fugitives to Buffalo, they were sent to the house of William and David Gould in Springfield, Pennsylvania and onward to Buffalo for the Canada crossing.

Sometimes as well as changing from a direct line, the conductors had to zigzag between lines to escape the slavecatchers. If the slavecatchers or masters captured a fugitive severe punished usually awaited at his or her former home. Punishments included branding, cutting off body parts, or shooting. Most severe and often fatal punishments included being hitched to a horse and dragged at galloping speeds over sharp stones and rough ground. Conductors and station masters on the Underground understood what fate awaited recaptured fugitives and they willingly faced mobs and penalties for aiding and abetting runaways to speed them along the Underground Railroad routes to Canada and freedom.

For nearly six years the Conneaut Anti-Slavery Society went about its work quietly and diligently, from October 23, 1839, to April 21, 1845. During those years, the Anti-Slavery cause gained in political momentum until Society members felt the necessity for definitive political action. At its last regular meeting on April 21, 1845, President and lawyer Benjamin Carpenter, Esq. presented a list of the names from the Society to serve as delegates to the Ashtabula County Liberty Convention to take place in Jefferson on May 6, 1845. President Carpenter read a list of the appointed delegates who were:  Edward P. Clark; Reuben Sanborn; M.W. Wright; S.A. Davis; A. Thompson; Reverend FW. Straight: Hiram Lake; A. Moulton; Reverend E.P. Dickinson; and Loren Gould. The Ashtabula County Liberty Convention marked the transition of the Society’s work into political action and its members concluded that the work of the last six years had accomplished its purpose and rendered the organization obsolete.

Memories and traces of the Underground Railroad have survived into 21st Century Conneaut. The South Ridge Baptist Church survives in modern form as does the Hiram Lake House. A church member and one of the fist members of the Conneaut Anti-Slavery Society, Hiram Lake lived his beliefs. A busy stop on the Underground Railroad, his house featured a trap door in the kitchen which led to a secret cellar underneath where slaves could hide to escape their pursuers.

Some documents and some traditional stories list the David Cummins Octagon House as another Conneaut Underground Railroad stop, although there is some controversy about the date it was built.

Some sources say that the Octagon House was built in 1860 when the Underground Railroad still operated. The house opened onto Conneaut Creek which runaways could follow to Lake Erie and a waiting ship to take them across to Canada. A room at the top of the house provided a lookout for slave catchers, although it could hold just two people at a time. Other sources state that the Octagon House was not built until 1863 or later, too late for the Underground Railroad and a house before it was the real hideout.

Once the fugitives arrived at the Lake Erie beach, the next step on the Underground Railroad turned watery. Often a sympathetic vessel captain waited for them having been notified of the cargo by sympathetic citizens, and the fugitives would be welcomed aboard and safely hidden until the vessel was underway. Sometimes informers would notify the slave catches of the human cargo departing from the docks and they would battle with the determined runaways and their allies. Sometimes smaller, private boats would carry the fugitives across Lake Erie to Canada and there are even stories about desperate runaways commandeering or accepting skiffs and canoes to navigate across the lake.

Underground Railroad conductors and like-minded lake captains worked together to keep the routes stretching across the lake to Canada. Many of their names are lost to history, but some have survived. Captain Calvin Appleby is recorded as a conductor on the Conneaut Underground Railroad. Born on August 17, 1808, in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, Calvin W. Appleby became fascinated with sailing at an early age and when his family moved to Conneaut in 1826, he quickly became familiar with Lake Erie currents and waves. He also built ships and later navigated them on Lake Erie, transporting passengers between Buffalo, New York, and Chicago, Illinois. The Indiana and the Sultana were two of his better-known ships.

Calvin Appleby adamantly opposed slavery and enjoyed a close friendship with Benjamin Wade and Joshua Giddings. He and frequently carried fugitive slaves from Conneaut and other lake ports to Fort Malden in Canada.

A story in the Conneaut Reporter of February 21, 1861, highlighted Captain Appleby’s anti-slavery stance. President Abraham Lincoln traveled by train through Conneaut, two weeks before his inauguration on March 4, in Washington D.C. He spoke to the assembled crowd from the train, telling them, “I have lost my voice and cannot make a speech, but my intentions are good.”

He thanked the people for the kindly demonstration and as the cars commenced to move slowly forward through the crowd which lined both sides of the track, Captain Appleby, our fellow townsman, called out to him, “Don’t give up the ship” To which Mr. Lincoln responded, “with your aid I ever will as long as life lasts”

Since he died on August 6, 1880. Captain Calvin Appleby’s life lasted longer than President Abraham Lincolns life, but he did not give up the ship, he gave over the ship to countless runaway slaves that he helped to freedom. He is buried in City Cemetery in Conneaut, near Lake Erie where he transported so many slaves to freedom on the watery last section of the Underground Railroad.