Ellis B. Steele, of Morning View in Pease township, who was himself a conductor on the Underground Railroad, presents us with some recollections of the operation of that noiseless road in conveyance of fugitive slaves through Belmont County to Emerson in Jefferson County, and thence northward toward Canada and freedom.
The date of opening this road is not definitely known, as there was no record kept of its business. However, from the traditions that have been handed down from our fathers, I am satisfied that the road was in operation 30 years prior to President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
This railroad was constructed without the sound of hammer, pick or shovel, and could be removed from one neighborhood to another, leaving no trace that any one except those identified with it could find.
My knowledge of the route of the Underground Railroad, north from Emerson, is limited. In ante-bellum times the least you knew about the Underground Railroad the better for you, yet it was important if interested in the road to know that little well. My recollection now is that the road from the Ohio River to the Lake was divided into sections, and on each section there was a station. These stations were from five to ten miles apart, so that in an emergency a change of horses and a fresh driver could be procured and in a few hours the fugitive salve would be spirited far on his journey toward Canada and out of reach of his pursuers.
The first station that I have any recollection of was in the woods and underbrush that crowned the hills between Martin's Ferry and Burlington. This station was located by Richard Naylor and Samuel Cooper (both colored), and the station was known and approved by their white confederates and co-workers. Naylor was born a slave with an innate hatred of the institution of slavery. After obtaining his freedom, he engaged in the hazardous business of receiving fugitive slaves, via the Underground Railroad, from Virginia, opposite, and would ferry them over the river to the first station back of Martin's Ferry. There Samuel Cooper and his son Henry received them, and as better and safer service could be given the patrons of the road on the night train, the fugitives were hurried to the next station. If the night was not far advanced and it was dangerous to operate the road, the passenger was at once given in charge of the conductor, who would lead him through the woods, and by lonely paths to some previously selected point at the second station in Concord settlement, now Colerain. Sometimes this station would be at Joshua Steele's old log barn, where beneath its puncheon floor many a poor fugitive slave spent the day in fear and trembling, waiting for the night train to carry him on his journey to Canada.
At other times the fugitives would be conducted to a safe hiding place on Joseph Parker's farm, thence to be conducted in like manner to the next station. Frequently it was expedient to conduct the fugitives to the home of Joshua Cope, who owned and operated the old log flour mill near the head-waters of Glenn's Run. Here they received a cordial welcome, their needs were supplied, and as soon as practicable they were conveyed to the third station, which was conducted by William Robison, a life-long friend of the slave, and his energetic and earnest assistant, George Clark. These gentlemen would see that all fugitive slaves arriving at their station were provided free tickets to Canada by way of the Underground Railroad.
The home of Dr. Caleb Cope of Farmington was another station where kindly services were rendered to the needy fugitive, and he was directed on his way to liberty. Henry Cooper, after years of service at the first station near Martin's Ferry, was suspected of aiding fugitive slaves in finding their way to Canada. The evidence was so strong against him that he was liable to be arrested or perhaps be kidnapped, and returned to slavery, for giving aid to fugitive slaves. His friends both white and colored were on guard with a train ready to start for Canada at a moment's notice. The persecutions that Cooper was subjected to were about to culminate in something serious when with the assistance of friends he noiselessly glided away, and in due time reached Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Soon after young Cooper was settled in Canada, his father was likewise suspected of giving aid and comfort to runaway slaves and the circumstantial evidence against him was so damaging that his friends advised him to leave the country and seek a more desirable home in Canada.
He took their advice and engaged a passage on one of the Underground Railroad flyers. He reached his destination in due time, where he was greeted by his son and a host of fugitive slaves that he had assisted in their flight to liberty.
When the Coopers were obliged to abandon the first station because of personal danger, Thomas Pointer (colored) was appointed to succeed them. Pointer had experience in the work, and with the aid of Tobe Hance, who was operating a flour mill near Glenn's Run, the station was again opened for the reception of the fugitive slaves.
This was the year of greatest activity in the operations of the road.
By playing the role of a drunkard, Naylor who managed the first station had thus far eluded detection and by craftiness continued for years to furnish passengers for the Underground Railroad. Finally he was suspected and would have been foully dealt with, had he not learned of the plan to capture him, and escaped via the Underground Railroad. There being no one willing to assume the risk of the position of passenger agent vacated by Naylor, the business for a time was exceedingly dull.
Only a few fugitives at long intervals arrived at the station of the river front. During the fall of 1858 business revived somewhat, but the Dred Scott Decision had thrown such a damper upon the workers that few conductors could be employed to run the trains.
In August, 1859, my uncle, O. C. Parker, and I conducted nine fugitive slaves from the first station near Martin's Ferry to the second station at my father's old home, where my brother Wesley had a team ready to convey them to the third station where my friend Robison took charge of them, and we returned, reaching home at daylight. This was the last full train that passed this way. After this time fugitive slaves traveled the public highways, stopping sometimes at our place to inquire the way to some friend in Mount Pleasant or Trenton. The business of the road was practically abandoned after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, and its work is now only remembered as a thing of the past. [Source: pages 141 - 142, Centennial History of Belmont County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens edited by A. T. McKelvey, 1905. Transcribed by Carol LaRue]