If you found yourself driving through Fountain City in east central Indiana, you might drive right past the red brick Levi Coffin House without giving it much consideration. But the house, built in 1839, was one of the stops of more than 2,000 freedom-seeking slaves traveling the Underground Railroad from the south.
I recently had the good fortune to visit the house, which still has its original flooring, doors and fireplace woodwork, on a tour of Wayne County. While there, I learned that Levi and Catharine Coffin were Quakers who had left North Carolina because they opposed the practice of slavery there. In Fountain City, which was then known as Newport, the Coffins opened a general store and eventually built a home for themselves, their six children and Levi’s mother.
According to the very knowledgeable volunteer who showed me through the house, the Coffins built the house with the intention that it would be a safe house on the Underground Railroad. Although Indiana was a free state, the federal fugitive slave laws made hiding runaway slaves a crime. A room at the rear of the house was constructed with 5 different doorways, so if a bounty hunter or slave seeker knocked at the front door, there were plenty of escape routes for any freedom seekers who might be in the house at the time. In one bedroom was the entrance to the “garret,” or small, easily hidden place where the slaves could hide. During my visit, I crawled into the entrance of the garret and was struck by how small and dark the space was. The guide said that slaves hiding there may have had to sit silent and motionless for hours at a time.
The kitchen of the home was located in the basement next to an unusual indoor well. It is not known if the well was an original intention of the Coffins or if it was built after an underground spring was discovered during the construction of the house. Regardless, the location of the well inside the house likely helped the Coffins to avoid raising the suspicions of anyone who might have wondered why they were making so many trips for water. (More people in the house would mean the need for more water.) Though it is difficult to tell from the picture below, the well is still supplied by an underground spring today. I put my hand in the water and found it to be crystal clear and quite cold. The channel leading from the top of the well is to lead any overflow of water out of the house.
Some of the furnishings in the house belonged to Levi and Catharine Coffin, including the desk, which bears an original shipping label on the back detailing that it was to be delivered to Levi Coffin.
Many of the tales recounted by the all-volunteer staff of the Levi Coffin House were told by Mr. Coffin himself and were collected in a book titled Reminiscences of Levi Coffin. Included in the book is the story of Eliza Harris, the slave who was made famous in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and who was one of the thousands of slaves who sought safety under the protection of Levi and Catharine Coffin.
The state of Indiana purchased the house in 1967. It is a registered National Historic Landmark and has been operated since it opened to the public in 1970 by an all-volunteer staff. The house is open to the public from 1:00-4:00pm on Saturdays in September and October and from 1:00-4:00pm Tuesday-Saturday from June 1-August 31. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 children ages 6-18 years old.
School and bus tours may be scheduled at other times by calling (765) 847-2432.