Aug 3, 2005

Paving Over The Railroad: A Trip To The Lathrop House

The following is an adaptation of a previously unpublished article that a national publication bought and then shelved.

Left: The Reverend Lucien Lathrop, circa 1860

The Lathrop House is a nineteenth-century building in Sylvania, OH with purported connections to the Underground Railroad, and a considerable body of historical evidence links the site to the larger effort of transferring slaves from bondage to freedom. It was recently shorn from its foundation and moved to a new location in Sylvania’s Harroun Park.

The house was off-limits to the public during the controversy over its relocation, and my attempts to persuade decision-makers at St. Joseph’s Church (the building’s owner) to let me tour the building were not successful. While cordial, church contacts declined my requests to enter the building, tour the grounds, or to set one proverbial foot on the property. In the interest of historical research, I did, however, commit the act of trespassing, gathering photographs and impressions on two occasions.

There is substantial evidence that the site may indeed be worthy of its rumored status as a Railroad station. A wide variety of documents from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries make mention of the site and its oral history. In addition, one of the early owners, Reverend Lucian Lathrop, was a politically active, avowedly anti-slavery citizen; among other doings, he attended the Free Democratic Party convention in 1849, which adopted a platform stating “slavery to be a moral, social and political evil.”

The site’s physical proximity to the Ten Mile Creek ravine also lends credence to traditional claims; one can easily envision the ravine’s potential as a surreptitious conduit for human contraband. Finally, the hidden room in the basement and the tunnel leading to the ravine certainly suggest that the house served purposes that needed to be veiled.

Civil Disobedience

On April 22, 2004, I joined with a fellow subversive and photographer (actually, my fifteen-year old son, Ben) on a reconnaissance mission. My previous visit had been limited to longer-distance viewing, since it was in conjunction with a protest march. We pulled into the driveway and began our odyssey of misdeeds.

Knowing from press reports that church officials adopted a “zero tolerance” policy towards trespassers, we pulled into the driveway knowing that our time was limited. Ben began snapping photographs as I pointed out historically significant details. Nearby magnolia trees were in full bloom, and an agitated bumblebee kept me in constant surveillance.

Also watching our activities, it turns out, was the Sylvania Police Department, whose members approached us after we had taken a mere fifteen pictures. Two uniformed officers approached us as we came from behind the house.

“Hello there!” the sergeant called out. “The church requested that we ask you to leave the premises, as this is private property.”

We exchanged pleasantries; I sympathized with the officers for the awkward position that the church’s stance put them in.

“Did you know that the City of Sylvania will be moving the house to city property?” the second officer asked, motioning towards an asphalt lot. “We might turn it into a museum.”

As we returned to the car, I noticed a small group of people across the street at St. Joseph’s Parish. One of the onlookers wore a clerical collar; they did not return our proffered waves. Visions of Christ and the temple moneychangers ran through my head as we drove away from the site.

Bidding the officers adieu, we drove around to the other side of the ravine, which has been turned into a municipal green space known as Harroun Park. The ravine empties into Ten Mile Creek; most likely it is the remnants of a Black Swamp era waterway.

From Harroun Park, we hiked back through the woods until we reached the rear of the Lathrop House. Having been interrupted in our evidence-gathering mission, we finished taking photographs and examining the sight from the relative cover of the ravine.

A Parish of Privilege

The future status of the site is in doubt, with the aforementioned demolition deadline looming. St. Joseph’s refuses to consider any proposal that contains even a sliver of the building’s black walnut log foundation remaining on site, and preservationists prefer that the church leave the building intact.

As the largest and wealthiest parish in the Toledo Diocese, St. Joseph’s Church has the financial wherewithal to mount a costly legal battle. In addition, the newly appointed Bishop Blair demonstrated that he is unwilling to challenge the position of St. Joseph’s in this announcement on April 6, 2004:

I believe that this compromise solution, far from destroying the heritage of our African American brothers and sisters, can serve to foster that heritage for the sake of everyone, whatever our race.

The church’s original intent was to demolish the structure, as noted in the original demolition permit. Public outcry and eminent domain threats then forced the church to consider other alternatives, and the decision was finally made to relocate the structure.

A Path to Freedom?

Runaway slaves emerging from the ravine might have looked upon Reverend Lathrop’s house perched upon the hill. The hidden stairwells and tunnel were located in the rear of the house, but have since been razed.

The route to freedom most likely continued northeast from the house, following an unnamed creek that flows behind the house (we gave it the name “Lathrop” Creek).

Runaway slaves might have continued down the ravine along the waterway. This stream, which currently flows at a trickle, travels approximately ¼ mile until it empties into Ten Mile Creek.

Just past this juncture, Ten Mile Creek meets its northern branch, which forms the western boundary of Toledo Memorial Cemetery. The joined streams form the official beginning of the Ottawa River. With its access to downtown Toledo and Lake Erie, the Ottawa River likely served as an important corridor in the Underground Railroad.

Standing sentry at the rear of the site is a 100-foot canoe birch tree, perhaps the tallest birch I have ever seen. It dwarfs most of the other trees in the ravine, and it looks almost freakish with its albino countenance in the midst of darker hardwoods. Many of the other trees have begun the springtime frenzy of exploding into vivid hues of green, but this birch is still budding. Perhaps, like preservationists, it was holding its breath until mid-May 2004, when the house with which it has shared nearly two centuries may fall victim to the wrecking ball.

Left: Lathrop Family Reunion photograph (10-04-1896) at Lathrop House

The contributions of the Lathrop family to the abolition movement and to the Underground Railroad have a longstanding oral tradition, and numerous family documents attest to Reverend Lucian Lathrop’s role as a conductor. The destruction of the site of the historic Lathrop House was a tragic loss to the memory of this abolitionist, and an insult to any ex-slaves who sought shelter at the site on their journey to freedom.


Anonymous said...

St. Joseph's is the most un-Christlike parish I have ever seen.

Hooda Thunkit said...

The thing that most of the vocal opponents of the actions of St. Joseph's fail to understand, to this day is:

The Lathrop house was St. Joe's private property.

In this country, that still means something.

Now, had the Supreme Court been involved...

historymike said...

True, Hooda. St. Joseph's was under no obligation - legally - to accomodate preservationists.

Lisa Renee said...

Having done some of the same historical research you have Mike, the Lathrop House should have been given historical status, as I also believe it was an important part of the underground railroad. However, it is obvious that did not happen. To me the issue began with the selling of the property to St. Joe's. Had that not happened it would have been a non-issue. But? In the end it is all about greed and history be damned except for those few of us that feel it is important.

Hooda Thunkit said...

St. Joe's might have acted differently if someone had approached them in a timely manner, instead of at the last minute.

Once your plans move along with no questions/objections until the very last moment, the “alleged” offending property owner is generally NOT going to give you a warm welcome. Besides, if the “Johnny come lately” interested parties, so-called friends of the Lathrop House were able to prove their contentions, the Lathrop House would have already been declared to be of historical value. In which case, St. Joe's wouldn’t have purchased it in the first place, understanding its' “untouchable” status. But, even at the last second (literally) a case could not be made to grant it historical status. Neither has it in the time since. St. Joe's, instead of destroying the house, offered it to whoever could move it off their site. And, as I recall, they took nothing for it.

So, I don't see "Big Old Meanie,” St. Joe's as the ogre they were made out to be.

This (internal to St. Joe’s) battle was about egos, control, and power, not the dubious “historical” value of the house in question.

That's my viewpoint, but YMMV.

Hooda Thunkit said...


Considering the situation St, Joe's found themselves in, they DID accommodate the preservationists as much as they could.

Overall, everyone got what they (claimed) they wanted, and the house was saved.

I'll bet that the "preservationists" could have had the basement too, for the asking. St. Joe's had no interest in the basement either.

Frank said...

One of the first "symbolic" resolutions I voted for back in '03 was asking the City of Sylvania to protect the Lathrop House and prevent my fellow Catholics from moving the Lathrop site, thereby making it ineligible for federal historic grants, etc. Your images, travelogue and sense of history are welcome additions to the debate.

Melissa Archibald said...

I think that the home should have been saved. I think the church should have listened to what the people wanted and realized the significance of the home. Once more I don't understand why it was not declared historic. Was it never submitted to the National Trust? The city could have received grants to save this building had it had been nominated for historically significant. Did the City look the other way? It's just a real crime to have moved it.

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Anonymous said...

I would like you all to know that it is not St. Joseph's fault. The house is still standing perfectly; it was only moved a couple hundred yards to make way for a new building project. People did not become interested in the site until after they made the purchase. Everyone is blaming St. Joe's on the pretens eo fit doing something horrible to a historic site. Think about. Hundreds and hundreds of homes were part of the Underground Railroad. Not everything can be saved. St. Joseph's saved one of the few remaining houses from that era. If it had been purchased by them, it could have fallen into anyone's hands. And not everyone may have stopped destruction plans, like St. Joseph's did. Thay even had a vote to see if the majority of Sylvanians wanted to have the house simply moved,or demolished. And about the pastor looking angry when you were caught trespassing, who wouldn't have? If you found some random guy taking pictures of your newly baught property, what would you think? I am a member of the St. Joseph Church, and I know, that they are extremely Christlike. You just need to see it from their point of view. Being attacked like they were for a property purchase, I think it was very Christ-like to put up a vote. I, for one, would have gone ahead and demolished it out of pure spite.

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