Wednesday, May 25, 2011


                                                                THE TUNNEL MYTH
            Many stories have circulated about tunnels linked to the Underground Railroad, some of which were supposed to run under the city of Marietta.  The most persistent rumor concerns a tunnel that supposedly ran from the banks of the Ohio or Muskingum River (take your pick) to the Anchorage, a house built by Douglas Putnam which wasn't even completed until 1858.  I have spent considerable time trying to verify the existence of such tunnels even though I’m very skeptical that there were ever any longer than fifty or sixty feet, and even these short tunnels must have been rare. 
            In my experience as an operating engineer for over thirty years, excavation was my specialty; I have dug up a lot of dirt on projects all over southeastern Ohio.  Based on my observations, the soil types that exist in the Ohio River valley and its surrounding hills would make it very difficult to dig out and maintain long tunnels at a time when modern machinery didn't exist.  Where would the excavated soil have been placed so it wouldn't be noticed?  Who would have labored to put in timbers to support a tunnel's roof ?  How would a tunnel have been ventilated?  On more than one occasion, I know of workmen killed or injured when the side walls of an open trench less than six feet deep caved in where there wasn’t even a roof to be concerned about.  As a matter of safety, trenching is such a dangerous task that OSHA safety regulations require construction crews to use a massive device called a Trench Box to protect workers in trenches over four feet deep.
            Some Underground Railroad stations and safe houses apparently did have short entrance- and exit-tunnels between a cellar and a hidden ravine, for example, with an exit or entrance located a short distance from the house or barn where fugitive slaves were hidden.  These would have been used for emergencies, as when the house was thought by a stationmaster to be under surveillance.  But I believe these short tunnels, where they existed, and the often literal inference given the word "underground" are responsible for all the myths and misperceptions of a vast web of tunnels running from house to house between the Ohio River and Canada.  Unless, of course, Underground Railroad operators themselves were responsible for perpetuating the myth to confuse and discourage bounty hunters.

                                                                 JEWETT PALMER
            While fugitives slaves may have taken refuge in Marietta on rare occasions, usually in an emergency, most often they quickly passed through the town at night and headed for more remote stations a night’s journey north of the Ohio River.  Jewett Palmer operated such a station in Fearing Township and, later, a few miles away in Liberty Township, both in Washington County.  Palmer was born near Orford, Grafton County, New Hampshire, on May 18, 1797. He grew up and received his basic education on his father's farm, a typical upbringing at that time.  While he had little formal schooling, Palmer was very intelligent and a serious reader.  At the age of 16, he joined the New Hampshire Volunteers and fought in the War of 1812.  Upon his discharge after the war, he returned to the family farm in New Hampshire.
            In 1817 the Palmers began a move to Ohio, spending the winter in Butler, Pennsylvania, and arriving in Washington County in 1818.  Jewett was soon exposed to the plight of fugitive slaves from across the Ohio River trying to find their way north across Washington County.  His own family had no doubt already instilled anti-slavery sentiments in Jewett's mind, as the Palmers were closely related to William Lloyd Garrison, the national leader of the Abolitionist movement in the United States.
            In 1823, Palmer married Rachel Campbell and the couple settled on a farm at the northern edge of Fearing Township.  Although he never ran for elective office, Palmer soon gained respect as a community leader.  His character was described as industrious and upright with unwavering judgment and fearless adherence to principle; he was always a helping hand to the down-trodden and the slave.  By 1830 he was operating the Underground Railroad station where many fugitive slaves found a helping hand for the next 35 years.  Known as "Uncle Jewett," Palmer remained popular with younger people for his entire life.  Young men sought his political advice and often voted for the candidates he endorsed, who of course were anti-slavery.  In 1852 he promised a group of young voters that they would see an end to slavery in their lifetime, little realizing that emancipation would come about during his own.
            At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Palmer, by this time advanced in age, tried to enlist in the Union Army.  He was affectionately assured by the recruiter that the situation was not yet so drastic as to demand men his age, so the elderly veteran of the War of 1812 went back to his farm to tend his crops.  His son Jewett Palmer, Jr., attained the rank of major in the Union Army before the war ended.  His father lived to see the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of all slaves in 1865.  In 1873, Palmer, Sr., came in from the fields for dinner and began reading a newspaper. When called to the table he declined, stating that he would wait a while.  Suddenly his arms dropped to his side and he peacefully departed this life on earth.  But as long as the struggle for freedom and justice continues on this planet, the spirit of Jewett Palmer will live along the rugged winding trail of the Underground Railroad across northern Washington County.

                                          THOMAS RIDGEWAY’S RAINBOW STATION
            Thomas Ridgeway was born January 22, 1796, of English ancestors at Shelbourne, Nova Scotia, where he resided until he was 13.  He obtained his education by attending night school, since he worked full-time as a cooper or barrel-maker during the day, supervising the cooperage department of one of the largest mackerel fisheries on Cape Brenton Island.  Later he was employed at other fisheries along the coast of Newfoundland, and as a British sailor during the War of 1812 he survived a terrible shipwreck.
            In 1821 Ridgeway went to New Orleans to seek his fortune working in the sugar refineries, but his health failed and he was forced to return to Halifax, Nova Scotia, later that same year.  In the spring of 1822 he returned to New Orleans where he resumed his old job until autumn, then traveled to southeast Ohio’s Washington County to visit the Dyar family, distant relatives who lived on a Muskingum River homestead.  He stayed with the Dyars until spring, when he and Joseph  Dyar pushed a boat up the Kanawha River to the salt works near present-day Malden, West  Virginia.  After disposing of their cargo at a nice profit, they contracted to produce salt barrels for a bushel and a peck of salt per barrel and the following fall sold the salt along the Ohio River from Marietta to Wheeling. 
            After continuing this enterprise for a couple of years, they returned to Marietta to buy some land jointly, dissolving their partnership in about 1825 when Ridgeway settled on a farm and soon afterwards married Esther Ann Dyar, the sister of his partner.  The couple had five children before Esther died, in 1836.  Ridgeway married Sarah Doane two years later and had five more children.  The second Mrs. Ridgeway died in 1862, and Ridgeway married Caroline Johnson in 1866.
            Ridgeway, a staunch Republican, operated a ferry across the Muskingum River between his house and land he owned on the east bank of the river.  His house was an asylum for runaway slaves; he is credited with sheltering more than 50 during the Underground Railroad era.  He lost two sons fighting for the Union in the Civil War.  A civic-minded man who supported many progressive causes, Ridgeway died April 23, 1883, at the age of 87.  He is buried beside his three wives and several children in the Rainbow Cemetery in  Washington County’s Muskingum Township.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Burke,

    You've done a tremendous public service by dismantling the annoyingly persistent tunnel myth on engineering grounds. Bravo. I will be linking to this blog at my own UGRR site: