In recent years, the Coffin House was ranked by The History Channel as one of the nation’s Top 25 Historical Sites. In 2016, The Smithsonian named the Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center as one of twelve new museums around the world to visit. Voted as one of the top Museums in the state of Indiana by Indiana Office of Tourism Development.
First, explore the Visitor Center and learn about the history behind the site in an orientation video. Afterward, you can tour the building to learn even more about the Coffins’ role in helping fugitive slaves seek freedom.
Lay your head in a mock false-bottom wagon to hear sounds of what it would have been like hiding in one of these escape tools. Try to lift a cotton bale, and learn about how slaves worked about one week to pick enough cotton for one bale.
Enjoy a guided tour of the actual home where the Coffins housed so many freedom seekers.
See unique features like a basement kitchen and indoor well that allowed the Coffins to provide food and water to freedom seekers – even when they arrived at all hours of the day or night.
A part of the legendary Underground Railroad for fleeing slaves of pre-Civil War days, this registered National Historic Landmark is a Federal style brick home built in 1839. More than 2,000 fugitive slaves were ushered to freedom through the Coffin House. The History Channel has listed the Levi Coffin House as one of the top 25 most historic sites in the United States. Admission is charged.
When Quakers Levi and Catharine (White) Coffin moved to Fountain City in 1826, it was called Newport. The young married couple left their home in Guilford County, North Carolina vowing to devote their lives to helping slaves reach Canada where freedom was guaranteed. The 30 or so families who settled here ahead of them had come for the same reason. Many were relatives or friends. However, few of the settlers were taking an active part in helping fugitives. This work was being done by freed slaves who were living there. They lacked connections and had limited knowledge of geography, and as a result many of the fleeing slaves were soon recaptured. The freed slaves themselves were in constant danger of being seized and resold into bondage. The Coffins decided to openly risk their property and future to register their opposition to slavery. They felt it was a moral issue which far outweighed Federal laws passed by Congress dominated by the slave-owning South.
Levi opened a mercantile store and as the community grew, he added other lines, and soon became the leading business man. Levi Coffin seemed to have a natural bent for inspiring others to become active in the pursuit. Women met regularly with Mrs. Coffin to sew or prepare garments gathered for the fugitives. Money was collected to provide shoes or other necessities.
The Underground Railroad traffic was heavy because three escape routes crossing the Ohio River converged at Newport. The three crossing points were Cincinnati, OH and Madison and Jeffersonville in Indiana. Three routes were used from here to carry the fugitives on north to Canada and sure safety. One to Greenville, OH, to Sandusky, across Lake Erie to Ontario, Canada; one to Fort Wayne, to Adrian, Michigan and then to Canada; and one to Cabin Creek in southwestern Randolph County to Grant County and to Battle Creek, MI and then to Ontario, Canada, across the Detroit River. This made it possible to shift fugitives from one route to another which thoroughly confused the slave hunters.
Under Levi Coffin's leadership, more than 2,000 fugitives were helping during the 20 years they lived in Newport. The slave hunters used to say that they could track their property to Newport, but there all trails disappeared. They began to say, "There must be an Underground Railroad from Newport to Canada and this house the Grand Central Station and Levi the President." Although his leadership was quite open, their home was never searched.
The house was built in 1839 as the Coffin's permanent home, but in 1847 they were prevailed to give up their business and move to Cincinnati to run a wholesale warehouse handling cotton goods, sugar and spices not produced with slave labor. Abolitionists were willing to pay high prices for these things which were known as "Free Labor Goods".
The Coffins kept this house until 1860 but never returned to live here. While in Cincinnati, they continued their leadership of the Underground Railroad and helped another 1,300 slaves, making the grand total 3,300.
The U.S. Department of Interior recognized the importance of this by placing the house on the National Registry of Historic Landmarks in 1966. In 1967, the house was purchased by the State of Indiana and leased to Wayne County Historical Society which agreed to attempt to raise the money for its restoration and to keep it open to the public. Hundreds of people and companies made this possible. As of 1987, the old lease was dissolved and the Levi Coffin House Association entered into a new agreement with the State of Indiana. The house is operated by the Levi Coffin House Association and dues, admissions, souvenir sales and the volunteer guides make it a success.
The restoration was completed in 1970. Fortunately, the house had been kept in good repair and almost nothing of the original house had been lost. Unused windows, doors and other parts had been stored in the garret or under the house. The biggest job was removing a 1910 hotel addition and six coats of paint. The fireplaces, floors, doors and most of the woodwork are original most of the original glass can be seen in the windows. The furnishings all predate 1847 and as nearly as possible are typical of the time period and those of a Quaker family.