OFFBEAT: Sandusky's past will live again

SANDUSKY In my last column, I offered a bold, original Idea: Build an Underground Railroad museum in
Tom Jackson
May 9, 2010



In my last column, I offered a bold, original Idea: Build an Underground Railroad museum in Sandusky.

I waited for the plaudits to roll in, and sure enough, I heard from Deb Benko of Port Clinton.

She's president of the board of Friends of the Sandusky Underground Railroad Education Center, a nonprofit organized in 2005 that had been working to bring a museum to Sandusky.

I told you it was a good idea.

The group’s next event is a play, “Frederick Douglass and Honest Abe,” which will be performed 7 p.m. March 2 at Adams Junior High School in Sandusky by Theatre IV, a national touring company from Richmond, Va. Tickets are only $5 apiece, available at the door or by calling MaryAnn Groot at 419-621-0344 or Esther Bates at 419-625-4443, or by e-mailing

Douglass, the former slave who became an author, speaker and abolitionist, spoke here. In March 1864, when Lincoln was president and the Civil War was still raging, Douglass lectured in Sandusky about the “Mission of the War.”

“To me, it’s amazing to learn Frederick Douglass spoke here in Sandusky,” Benko said.

The Sandusky Daily Register, as this newspaper was called then, said, “All may not be able to agree with him in all his conclusions, but all will be forced to admit he makes a strong case for according manhood and its responsibilities and duties to the colored man.”

Benko told me Sandusky was important enough in the Underground Railroad to be mentioned in Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin."

Last summer, the Friends offered trolley tours highlighting the history of the Underground Railroad in Sandusky. The tours will be back this summer, with tour dates scheduled for May 19, June 16, July 7, July 14, July 21, July 28, Aug. 18 and Sept. 15. The tours show off the historic houses which served as stations on the Railroad, and tell stories about the people who lived in them.

In February 2008, the group plans to present an original play about Sandusky’s Underground Railroad history.

The Friends also are working with the city on signs for the city’s network of walking paths.

Local foundations such as the Mylander Foundation, the Erie County Community Foundation and the Dorn Foundation have provided grants.

And the museum? Benko hopes the events in February of next year will serve as a catalyst for a fund-raising effort to build a museum and education center.

And as I had hoped, Benko wants the museum downtown.

“We think that would be the most suitable place for it,” she said. “This was the center of where everything happened.”

Much of the success of the fund-raising efforts will depend on the membership of the Friends group, and whether it will keep growing.

The group has about 40 paid members, about 15 of them active.

An annual regular membership costs $25, with $15 memberships for seniors and students. Members get an occasional newsletter, a decal for their car, e-mail newsletters once a month and the satisfaction of knowing they are preserving Sandusky history and helping the economy by promoting local tourism.

Meetings are 5 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at the Maritime Museum in downtown Sandusky; the next meeting will be March 8. Just show up.

Benko believes there are lessons for today from the abolitionists.

The abolitionist community included prominent whites such as Rush Sloane, an attorney who later became Sandusky’s mayor, but also ordinary whites and blacks. (Sloane was a busy guy. According to, an online encyclopedia of Buckeye history, he also “purchased Cedar Point and took the first steps in converting the site to a vacation spot.”)

“There was a very strong free black community in Sandusky which led a lot of these efforts,” Benko said. “People of different races and classes came together over this issue.”