LaBoiteaux Woods Ravine to Freedom
In 2005, research was started at Laboiteaux Woods regarding the Underground Railroad history and its connection to the park. Starting with the book A Little Piece of Paradise College Hill, Ohio; by Betty Ann Smiddy, it became clear that the area had a story to tell. One of the primary resources used was a letter from Harriet Wilson to Wilbur Siebert, in 1892, in which she recounts
They seemed gifted with a kind of magnetic power, which, with their grips and pass words, drew those of different localities together, making them choose the least travelled ways and the deep shadowed ravines and valleys lying on each side of our beautiful hill, soon seemed to be the popular route chosen by the wayfarers.
We have Anna Benison’s (Strong) 1966 interview with historian Ruth Wells, who recounted that, her father and grandfather (Freeland and Elon Strong) would leave food and burlap sacks in the brush piles behind their homes for the escaping slaves, who had come up the ravine, and hid until nightfall when they would be driven by wagon to the next station. The Strong homes were located on the eastside of Hamilton Avenue and two can be seen from the ravine today, with the most famous being Six Acres Bed and Breakfast
In 2005, the Mill Creek Restoration Project (now Groundwork Cincinnati Mill Creek) planted the Freedom Grove trees in honor of the place where escaping slaves would exit the Mill Creek and start their trip northward along the wooded ravines following Hamilton Avenue. Creeks and streams were often followed as they provided natural cover, easier travel and the water would disguise their scent should hunting dogs be tracking (LaBoiteaux’s creeks are tributaries of the Mill Creek)
In 2008, the first Ravine to Freedom program would be held at LaBoiteaux Woods telling the stories of the Underground Railroad spanning the communities of Northside, College Hill, North College Hill and Mt Healthy along Hamilton Avenue. The program was offered in February, during Black History month, to give participants a “feel” of what it was like for the slaves to travel in the cold and over rough terrain. Many of the slave escape stories happened during the winter when they would cross a frozen Ohio River.
In October 2010, The National Underground Freedom Center would partner with students from Miami University for their first Freedom Walk. These young men would walk forty miles from the Margaret Garner memorial in Covington Ky. thru Cincinnati up the Ravine, with an overnight stop at Six Acres Bed and Breakfast. They would continue on their way to Miami University in Oxford. It was at this time that LaBoiteaux’s Ravine would receive a designation from the Freedom Center as the only “document, undeveloped local escape route”.
In 2012, Kathy Dahl (Cincinnati Park naturalist) would partner with Betty Ann Smiddy (award winning author and historian) to form the Hamilton Avenue Road to Freedom committee. The meeting, held at LaBoiteaux Woods, included representatives from the historical societies of Northside, College Hill, North College Hill, and Mt Healthy; Cincinnati Park Board, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Hamilton County Recorder’s Office and Ohio Historical Society Ameri Corp. This meeting would be the catalyst for further Hamilton Avenue Road to Freedom research, map and website.
During 2012 Kathy Dahl would receive the Hamilton County Recorder’s Office “Griffin Yeatman Award” for the Ravine to Freedom and Wesleyan Cemetery programs and an Ohio Parks and Recreation “Historic Interpretation Award” for the Ravine program. To date, over a thousand people have attended the Ravine to Freedom programs. The staffs at Cincinnati Parks and LaBoiteaux Woods remain committed to the sharing of these stories.
For more information on Cincinnati Parks programming visit: http://www.cincinnatiparks.com/
For information regarding Ravine to Freedom call LaBoiteaux Woods at 513-542-2909
Kathy Dahl, Cincinnati, Feb. 7, 2014 (photos inserted by Diana Porter to honor Kathy)