Many Ohio University students and Athens residents are unaware of the rich culture and history that underlies this "party town." Most never realize the importance of the community's role in major American historical events.
An example of this is the Underground Railroad, the famous network of individuals who helped escaped slaves to freedom in the northern states or Canada in the years leading up to the Civil War. According to Ivan M. Tribe, author of "Albany, Ohio: The First 50 Years of a Rural Midwestern Community," evidence indicates that the local activity of the Underground Railroad was more intense than was the general pattern in other areas of the north. He stated in his work that Albany was one of the most important stations of the movement in Ohio from 1850-1863.
Although operating in some form in all states, north and south, the Underground Railroad was best documented in the states north of the Ohio River, Henry Robert Burke, a historian who specializes in Afro-American history and the Underground Railroad, said in a recent e-mail interview. Historians disagree on the number of slaves aided by the Underground Railroad, but estimates range between 50,000 to 100,000.
Some might question the existence of the Underground Railroad in Athens County because of the relatively small black population in the area. According to Burke, most escaped slaves chose not to settle in the area because they felt it was too dangerous, especially with the close proximity to the slave state of Virginia (before West Virginia separated to become its own non-slave state).
Some researchers look to Census reports to help support the existence of the Underground Railroad in Athens County. Extensively researching these reports, Alvin Adams, president of the Multicultural Genealogical Center in Chesterhill, compared data from 1850 and 1860. He found that the majority of black families who lived in the general vicinity in 1850 no longer lived there in 1860, which he takes as evidence of the Underground Railroad.
Athens County had many abolitionists, most of whom were from the upper ranks of the community and held either local or county political office. One of the most active was John Brown, a self-educated businessman. The first slave to come into Albany was hidden under the floor of Brown's Mercantile, which was located on Washington Street. In place of his store now lies a stone marker that recognizes Albany as a major site of the Underground Railroad.
Another site is just north of Athens in Millfield off Ohio Rt. 13. The house was originally built by Daniel Weethee, whose family was a major contributor to the Underground Railroad. He, too, was considered well off and is said to be one of the original pioneers of that area.
Dane McCarthy, the current owner of the house, lived there in the early '70s as a college student when rent was only $25 a month. It had no plumbing or electricity, and the only source of water was a well in front of the house. Although McCarthy moved out in 1974, he would still drive past to check on its condition. He had noticed that no one had lived there since he had left. After 25 years of watching the house deteriorate, he inquired about it and asked the owner to sell it to him, which he did.
McCarthy spent the next few years restoring the house to its original form. During the construction, he heard several stories from community members that his house was a part of the Underground Railroad, equipped with tunnels and hidden rooms.
"For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what connection the house had with the Underground Railroad," McCarthy said. "I looked around, but I couldn't see anything."
He was able to contact a member of the Weethee family, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, who had lived in the house during the early 20th century. She told McCarthy that there was a room behind the fireplace where slaves were hidden. Many family members did not know about this room because one entrance was covered with wallpaper while the other was covered with a rug or trunk. Shahn discovered the room when she was playing dolls in the attic with a girlfriend. They had found an iron ring that was connected to the floor. Confused, they pulled on it to discover a trap door, which lead to a "dark, dingy staircase going down," McCarthy said.
She later questioned her aunt about the door because they were unsure about its purpose in the house. Her aunt revealed that some of their family members were "conductors" for the Underground Railroad, and they hid runaway slaves in the room.
"They [the slaves] would just sit on these steps, probably, and just hunch-up and hide," McCarthy explained. He added that the escaping slaves did not stay long, maybe just overnight, and then they would move to the next station.
Last year, The Friends of Freedom Society declared McCarthy's house an official site of the Underground Railroad. His house is not open to the public, but he has given tours to certain groups, including old residents of the house and a few African-American families.
Other sites in Athens County include White's Mill and the Sigma Phi Epsilon house (24 E. Washington in Athens). According to OU's Viscom website, the ghost of a slave, Nicodemus, killed in the 1800s while trying to escape through a secret tunnel in the house, can be heard scratching and whining. Some even say they have witnessed the opening of locked doors and the appearance of a man in ragged clothing.
AS INTEREST IN THE Underground Railroad has increased in recent years, Albany artist Joni Carrington has spent the last three years studying the subject in hopes of enriching Albany's history. She has donated several paintings to the Henry Wells public library in Albany and dedicated a mural to the town of Albany, which represents its history in the 1800s. It is located on the side of the Cornerstone's building, which is said to be part of abolitionist Brown's store, and next to the Underground Railroad stone marker.
Working closely with historians and local residents, Carrington has identified three routes that ran through Albany. The first originated in eastern Kentucky, extending from the Ohio River through Lawrence County to the Burland Crossroads and into Albany. The second traced across Gallia County from Kentucky and Virginia to the Vinton County village of Wilkesville and then to Albany. The last one originated in Gallipolis and went north to Rutland in Meigs County and into Albany.
"These were the established routes but sometimes they crossed the Ohio River east of Pomeroy and came directly across Meigs County," Carrington said.
One misconception about the Underground Railroad is that it mainly ran through underground tunnels, Carrington said. Most slaves were actually hidden in secret rooms or under haystacks, she added, and some were even disguised in the opposite sex's clothing for safe transportation to the next station. "People always think that there has to be a tunnel to be part of the Underground Railroad," Carrin