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Ask the Truth
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Send your question to askthetruth@elkharttruth.com. Each week, we'll ask readers to vote on the question they'd like to see answered, and one of our will reporters will figure it out.



Ask The Truth: Is there a house in Bristol with a secret tunnel used by the Underground Railroad?

Legends of escaped slaves fleeing to safety using underground tunnels have circulated around area historic homes. Find out what’s fact and fiction.

Posted on June 13, 2014 at 5:54 p.m.

Last week, our readers voted for us to answer the question, “I have heard that a house in Bristol has tunnels leading from the basement to the river that were used for the Underground Railroad. Is this true?” 

To find an answer we explored one dark basement and dug through local legends to separate historical fact from fiction. 

If you’d like to submit your own question for us to answer, write it in the blue box at the bottom of the page labeled “Ask the Truth: What have you always wanted to know about our community?” or email it to askthetruth@elkharttruth.com. 

 

The beautiful brick exterior of the Solomon Fowler Mansion can be seen along Vistula Street, on the west edge of Bristol. Built by its namesake in 1868, the historic home has collected rumors of ghosts, secret passageways and underground tunnels. Only two of the three are true according to its current resident, Lynette Johnson. “We haven’t seen any ghosts,” Johnson said.

When it comes to local legends, the biggest thing around attracts the most stories.

That’s the opinion of Ervin Beck, professor emeritus of English at Goshen College. Stories of escaped slaves being spirited away through underground tunnels leading from basements toward rivers have swirled around many of Elkhart County’s historic brick homes.

While some of the old homes do hold mysterious features, as in the case of the Solomon Fowler Mansion, most were built after the Civil War had ended. “There would have been no reason for it,” Beck said.

Stairs creak as light bulbs cast shadows across the brick walls of the Solomon Fowler Mansion’s basement. At the end of the main hallway is a 4-foot-wide hole where Johnson and her husband broke the concrete to uncover the tunnel-like structure underneath.

“There was a hole here when we moved in but it was much smaller,” Johnson said. “We kind of hacked away at it so we could figure out what this was all about and so we could get in.” What they found was a barely knee-deep space lined with brick. “Unless you crawl the whole way there’s no way a person could get through,” Johnson said. 

The stories connected to the Underground Railroad often tell of dramatic escapes and perilous journeys to freedom.

While that may have been true further south, second-hand accounts in northern Indiana were rather leisurely, Beck said. “They weren’t really safe until they got to Canada, but they were fairly safe here,” he said.

Reports tell of parties, escaped slaves singing and dancing at night or traveling north by wagon during the daytime, Beck said. Only one dramatic incident was recorded in court documents when three slave catchers from Kentucky attempted to recapture an escaped slave in 1848. Federal law still supported slavery and allowed the pursuit and recapture of slaves under the Fugitive Slaves Act. Even with the law on their side, the trio failed and were instead tried for the crime of “riot” at the Elkhart County Courthouse in Goshen.

Beck sees the word ‘underground’ as more of a metaphor. Abolitionists did operate in Elkhart County. Owen Coffin, Charles Murray, B.F. Cathcart and E.W.H. Ellis were only a few historical figures from Elkhart County who had spoken out against slavery.

The difficulty in finding proof to further tell the story of the Underground Railroad’s activities in northern Indiana is lost somewhere between factual evidence and the stories or memories passed on from one generation to another, Beck said.

“You didn’t dare write down things about your work with the Underground Railroad less they would be found and you would be prosecuted,” Beck said.

Johnson has her own theory on how the rumors about her historical home started. Originally from New York, Solomon Fowler moved to Bristol in 1836 and started a general merchandise business downtown. His partner was Coffin, a known abolitionist.

“This house wasn’t a part of it, but I think he was,” Johnson said. While the myth of the mansion’s connection to the Underground Railroad may have been debunked, the small space thought to be a tunnel is still a mystery.

“We’ve had all kinds of ideas, everything from the bootleg idea to part of the heating system. Who knows, I guess it’s still up in the air,” Johnson said.

 




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 Pat Johnson, local cemetery historian, looks through some of her research Wednesday, July 16, 2014 at Grace Lawn Cemetery in Elkhart. The head stone she's resting her book on was originally part of Elkhart's oldest cemetery, the now-defunct Middlebury Street Cemetery.

Posted on July 19, 2014 at 7:49 a.m.
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