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Explore the Underground Railroad

The Ohio River, which forms Kentucky’s northern border, constituted a major portion of the Mason-Dixon Line separating slave from free states in the years before the Civil War. Abolitionists and their anti-slavery sympathizers in Kentucky were an important part of the network known as the Underground Railroad that aided fugitive African Americans in their pursuit of freedom.

Today, you can still see remnants of this network, which was not an actual railroad but did have fixed stops, in Kentucky’s Mason County, particularly the Ohio River towns of Maysville and Old Washington.

Mason County’s Freedom Trail Underground Railroad Driving Tour, offered throughout the week from April to December, is a good way to experience the saga of African Americans who fled enslavement in the South in hopes of attaining free lives in northern states. The tour, which takes about five hours and should be booked one week in advance, also provides insight into the lives of white Kentuckians who had the courage to oppose slavery and aid in the perilous flight to freedom.

Coordinated by the Maysville-Mason County Convention and Visitors Bureau (606-563-2596), the tour includes visits to the National Underground Railroad Museum, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum, safe houses with hidden stairwells and secret passageways, and other points of interest in the final leg of the dangerous journey.

At the National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville, located in the Bierbower Home (606-564-3200), learn the history of this anti-slavery family and view artifacts of slavery such as shackles and whips, historic photos and other memorabilia. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the influential anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” visited Old Washington in 1833 and witnessed a slave auction, which was common at the time. Considered by some whites a form of entertainment, auctions attracted many spectators to the courthouse lawn. Tour the museum (606-759-7411) and learn about Stowe, once described by President Abraham Lincoln as “the lady who started the great war.”

Another stop in Old Washington is Paxton House, built by prominent attorney and abolitionist James. A. Paxton. A favorite meeting place for lawyers and citizens to discuss politics and key issues of the day, Paxton House (606-759-7411) was a station on the Underground Railroad.

For more information on the Underground Railroad in Mason County, visit www.cityofmaysville.com and www.washingtonky.com.