Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring / Summer of History-Civil War 150-Lake County, Ohio - Samuel Butler: Fairport Harbor's First Lighthouse Keeper and an Underground Railroad Operator

In the fall of 1825 a lighthouse came into service on the banks of the Grand River.  One of eight lighthouses on the Great Lakes at that time, it quickly attracted a growing number of vessels to the port of Fairport.  But Fairport wasn't only a hub of commerce and a gateway to the Western Reserve; it's lighthouse soon became a final stop on the Underground Railroad.  Samuel Butler was the first keeper of the Grand River Lighthouse at Fairport.  His lighthouse served as a beacon to freedom to escaped slaves and the townsfolk made Fairport a safe haven for the important 'cargo' that passed through.

Around the time of the lighthouse's early history (1825), eight significant Underground Railroad terminals were in place in Ohio.  Three routes came came through Painesville, and before that Concord, where several routes converged.  Conductors from Painesville were Joseph H. Pepoon.  A former millright, he hid runaways in his hayloft.  James H. Paine, a lawyer also hid slaves in his home.  Seth Marshall was a local Painesville merchant.  His hardware shop on Main Street was used as a safe haven.  Locals Eber Howe and Frank Rodgers were other  abolitionists who assisted runaway slaves.

Fairport located between Cleveland and Ashtabula became another major point of departure for fugitive slaves.  Samuel Butler was appointed the first keeper of the lighthouse (1825).  Early on, he became a noted supporter of the abolitionist movement.  By 1844, Butler and Phineas Root ( Fairport's Steamboat Hotel owner) were actively involved in the cause of freedom.  Both he and Phineas hid some slaves in the warehouses near the harbor.  1850 saw Butler, now a local tavern owner become chairman of a citizen's group to repeal the Slave Act.  His Eagle Tavern became a haven for slaves and a headquarters for the citizen's movement.  Butler often hid slaves in the garret of his tavern.  Butler himself sometimes transported groups of fugitive slaves across the lake in his scow while slave hunters roamed the dock areas. 

Samuel Butler ( 1794-1881) is just one Civil War era story being told in Fairport this summer at the lighthouse.  Come visit the Fairport Lighthouse and Marine Museum any Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday or legal holiday beginning May 28th. Once there you'll learn some more about the hidden gems and primary sources that are  Lake County's history.

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