UNDERGROUND AT THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: TESTING AT JOHN P. PARKER'S HOUSE AND FOUNDRY SITE IN RIPLEY, OHIO

Bob Genheimer

Cincinnati Museum Center

Ohio Archaeological Council © 2001

The corroded and delicate cast iron angel (Figure 1) was found on the very first day of excavations, just below the side door of the Parker House in a context that suggests it had been placed beneath a porch floor. Did Parker cast this nearly two pound angel? Was it hidden there by one of Parker's six children and then forgotten? Archaeology will not answer these questions, but the angel has become the icon for archaeology at the site. And, archaeology could unearth no more fitting symbol to the memory of this great man. For, John Parker was simply that--an "angel of mercy" to hundreds of runaway slaves whom he rescued from the South before the Civil War. For more than a decade Parker led a dual life, operating an iron foundry during the day and helping slaves cross to the North into Ohio during the night. His courage and determination to fight the injustice of slavery, and his talents and success as an African-American businessman in the face of much discrimination, make his life one of America's great stories.

Figure 1. Cast iron angel, obverse.
Figure 1. Cast iron angel, obverse.
 


John Parker was born nearly 600 miles from Ripley, Ohio in Norfolk, Virginia in 1827. The son of a black man and a white woman, he was placed into slavery early in life. As a boy, he first went to Richmond, Virginia, and then was placed in a chain of slaves for a grueling walk to Mobile, Alabama. Parker hated the institution of slavery. And, his experience with this forced march forged his determination to obtain his own freedom. While still a young teenager, Parker was purchased by a widower in Mobile, with the understanding that he would pay back his purchase price of $1,800 to obtain his freedom. He did so by apprenticing in an iron foundry, and in 1845 at the age of 18, left the South as a free man, and traveled to New Albany, Indiana, where he had been told of a number of iron foundries. After a short time he departed for Cincinnati, where he found work as an iron molder. It was in Cincinnati that he got his first taste at rescuing slaves, helping a barber to bring his family north. He also started his own family in Cincinnati, marrying Miranda Boulden, a native of that large metropolis, in 1848.

He came to Ripley, a bustling Ohio River town in 1849, but may have been there as early 1845 or 1846 (see Sprague 1996:74). It is not clear when Parker entered into the foundry business in Ripley, but most probably by the early 1850s he became proprietor of an iron foundry along the Ohio River. He lived in a home next to his place of business, undoubtedly the same home that stands on the Parker lot today. An 1856 fire at the site destroyed much of the foundry and damaged the nearby house. The house was restored, and the foundry was rebuilt almost immediately. Its new name, Phoenix Foundry, is undoubtedly a testament to its rise from the ashes of the former manufactory. Parker later purchased the house and foundry.

Between about 1845 and 1865, Parker became deeply involved with the rescue of slaves from Kentucky. He describes this stretch of the Ohio River as the "Borderland"--the land between the North and the South where the most critical part of a runaway's journey took place. It was here that Parker found his niche. At night he would cross into Kentucky, connect up with slave parties, and lead them secretly across the Ohio River to safe hands. Parker excelled at this "game," and is credited with hundreds of rescues during the two decades prior to the end of the Civil War. At least one source suggests he plucked more than a thousand slaves from the South (see Siebert in Weeks 1971:156).

After the Civil War, and the general emancipation of slaves, Parker devoted his energies to the successful operation of his iron molding business. Either as sole proprietor, or with a partner, Parker operated the Phoenix Foundry at the Front Street address until 1889. In August of that year, another severe fire destroyed much of the foundry, leaving only his machine shop and his badly damaged home. Parker restored the home, but moved the foundry portions of his operation a block and a half to the north, just opposite Sycamore. This was known as the J. P. Parker Foundry. He operated that foundry until his death in 1900.

Figure 2. Patent drawing for Parker's Portable Screw Press, 1885.
Figure 2. Patent drawing for Parker's Portable Screw Press, 1885.
 


Parker held several patents associated with the iron industry. He is perhaps best known for his tobacco press (Figure 2), patented on May 19, 1885 as a "Portable Screw Press" (U. S. Patent No. 318,215). Tobacco was big business in that part of southern Ohio and the nearby area of northern Kentucky, and Parker capitalized on this product by developing a portable press that would pack tobacco into barrels or hogsheads. The press was made of wood and iron, and could be moved easily between locations. Several of these presses, still with Parker's name attached, can be seen in the Ripley and Maysville areas today. He also patented a follower screw for the press in 1884 (U. S. Patent No. 304,552), and a "soil pulverizer" in 1890 (U. S. Patent No. 442,538). According to W. E. B. DuBois (Weeks 1971:155), only 55 black inventors held more than one patent in the year 1901. And, Parker had three of the seventy-seven issued to African Americans before 1886.

The John P. Parker Historical Society acquired the house and roughly 1,750 square meter lot in 1995 and immediately embarked upon a campaign of raising funds to stabilize and renovate the deteriorating structure. As part of the stabilization efforts, it was proposed that a former side porch area be enclosed, as it had been in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Subgrade impacts included concrete footers and an elevator shaft. The Society was rightfully concerned about the impacts of this work to existing archaeological resources and in 1997 approached the Cincinnati Museum Center to assess their interest in conducting preliminary testing within the impact area.

Interest in the archaeology of the Parker site was immediate. And, of particular interest was Parker's story. Two things--freedom and iron--defined his adult life. As an African American, Parker managed a successful iron foundry in the face of much discrimination. And in his nocturnal rescues, he operated with his life and personal liberty at peril. It is this story of freedom and determination that we knew would make the archaeology special. The archaeological "situation" was equally compelling. Nearly unheard of in an urban setting, the Parker lot had remained relatively unchanged since the disastrous 1889 fire. With the exception of a small coal scales shed, no new buildings had been constructed. Much of the former industrial portions of the lot had been covered with aggregate rock and asphalt--in effect, sealing any subsurface deposits. And, perhaps most fortunate, the morphology and decline of the Phoenix foundry were documented in great detail by a series of Sanborn insurance maps. In a nutshell, the Parker lot was a virtual gold mine for the recovery of materials and information on John P. Parker, his family, and his industry.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.
 


The 1998 testing began with a pair of test units, each placed against the stone foundation of the Parker House (Figure 3). The first of these units, Test Unit 1, revealed considerable evidence for a serious fire or fires affecting the Parker House. Burned timbers lay where they had fallen, their heat turning the clay soil to a soft red. And, hundreds of scorched nails, freed from their boards, littered that surface. But the true heat of the fire is attested to by the large quantities of window glass melted into blobs and drips. This zone of fire and destruction was clearly delineated on the house foundation by a linear band of oxidation and ash (between 23 and 26 cm below surface). Each of the units produced domestic items, although only in low to moderate numbers. The greatest number of Kitchen-related items was recovered from Test Unit 2 in a thin, sealed deposit. Datable ceramics within this zone suggest a deposit no later than the end of the Civil War. In general, the 1998 testing revealed that there was considerable evidence on the extent of the nineteenth century fires, and a general indication that domestic materials associated with the Parker family were present.

More systematic excavations at the Parker lot were conducted in the summer of 2000. In May of 2000, the John P. Parker Historical Society was awarded a Challenge Cost Share Program Grant from the National Park Service to conduct more preliminary excavations at the Parker site. The goals of the 2000 excavations were to identify both domestic and industrial features at the site, evaluate their integrity and archaeological potential, and to prepare an archaeological development plan for the JPPHS. Accessible areas of the site (i.e., those without asphalt or rock cover) were probed and cored, three hand-excavated test units were dug, and five mechanically stripped test trenches were opened. These excavations exposed only slightly less than 80 square meters, or less than 5% of the total lot. Nevertheless, they led to the identification of 51 historic features. More than 10,100 items were recovered, weighing nearly 208 kg (458 lbs). Of this total, nearly 85% by count, and more than 60% by weight were discarded after processing and analysis.

The three hand-excavated test units (Test Units 3, 4/6, and 5) in the front and side of the Parker House were essentially designed to gather information on Parker and his family. Each of the units exhibited considerable fill placement. Much of this fill consists of architectural items, combustion byproducts (of which Parker had many), and locally available soils. It is hypothesized that this fill placement was an attempt to "raise the grade" of the Parker lot above persistent Ohio River flood levels. The depth of historic fill varied from as little as 25 cm near the Parker House to as much as 1.35 meters near Front Street. Unfortunately, domestic debris was only a minor constituent of the fill, and lacked the context and density necessary to address questions on the Parker Family. These low levels of domestic debris are in contrast to the more moderate recovery at Test Units 1 and 2 beneath the side porch.

The precise age of front yard fill deposits is difficult to determine. The few temporal diagnostics present within the fill are indicative of a general nineteenth century origin, a fact that can be established through a cursory review of historic documentation for the lot. One clue to the age of the front yard fill is the buried A horizon near the base of Test Unit 6. This sealed, former land surface contains a small assemblage of temporally diagnostic sherds that indicate a mid-nineteenth century occupation, most likely prior to the Civil War. The 70 to 87 cm of fill above this surface was deposited in the last 140 years, and most between the 1860s and 1910.

The most significant feature uncovered during the front yard excavations is a cast iron walk found in Test Unit 4. This unique feature, consisting of blocks 60 cm in width and between 3 and 8 cm in thickness, is buried up to a third of a meter beneath the present lot surface. The blocks were undoubtedly poured and cast on site.

The majority of archeological features were uncovered in the rear of the lot during investigations into the industrial remains of the Phoenix Foundry. These excavations were guided, in part, by a series of Sanborn Insurance maps, beginning with the 1884 edition and ending with a 1920 (corrected) version. The foundry complex is clearly delineated on the earliest of the maps, prepared approximately five years before the destructive fire. The backhoe trenches reveal that foundry features, including foundations, piers/footers, post molds, wooden floors, structure floors, and a portion of the oven/furnace floor are still there beneath a rock and asphalt cover (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Segmented plan view of Test Trench 1.
Figure 4. Segmented plan view of Test Trench 1.
 


In most places, the features lie buried within and below foundry waste. At Test Trench 2, as much as 1.5 meters (nearly 5 feet) of historic fill was noted. Although the lowest level of fill in that trench consists of imported "dirty clay," the majority of fill is comprised of combustion byproducts or slag from foundry operations. This fill is not rich in artifacts, but may provide information on the type of melt from which it was produced.

A number of significant features were exposed: these include the remains of a structure at the south end of Test Trench 1; a crucible floor within that structure; a large wood-lined box containing combustion byproducts and corroded product elements; a large structure or room floor near the intersection of Test Trenches 2 and 3; a large section of a floor of an oven/furnace feature; two deep limestone-lined wells; and, a prepared clay floor, which apparently lies beneath the entire foundry complex. In addition, numerous structural elements were uncovered. These include substantial foundations, simple piers or footers, and post molds.

Two industrial features are worthy of further note. Feature 8 is a compacted floor of a large number of flint-tempered, fired clay ladle or crucible fragments. The fragments range from very small pieces less than 5 cm in length, to large segments measuring 25 by 30 cm. All exhibit a slight, but marked, curvature, indicating a vessel of significant size. And, although no attempt was made to reconstruct or mend fragments, the curvature suggests a basin or basins 56 to 60 cm in diameter could be constructed. Based on these tentative dimensions, equally tentative volumes of 46,000 to 56,500 cc, or 12 to 15 gallons, can be calculated.

Feature 12, a large rectangular, wood-lined box filled with foundry waste and products, was located nearly three-quarters of a meter below present lot surface. The box measures 1.75 meters in length, 80 cm in width, and was originally as much as 1.54 meters in depth. A sample of box fill produced a number of foundry products, including many badly corroded cast machine parts. A number have been machined (e.g., drilled or cut), indicating that they were not direct casting rejects, but they were deemed unsuitable only after additional processing. More than 90% of this feature remains.

Prehistoric material was noted in nearly all test units and test trenches, reminding us that this landform was utilized by cultural groups long before Parker poured his first ladle of iron. Most, consisting of fire-cracked rock fragments, was recovered from within disturbed fill, although some undisturbed, or only marginally disturbed horizons contained prehistoric material. At Test Unit 6, temporal/cultural diagnostics were recovered that give us some idea as to both the age of one prehistoric occupation, and the stability of this Ohio River terrace. A flint bladelet segment and the base of a Middle Woodland-age spear point from Zone E, indicate that Native Americans utilized this former land surface sometime from approximately the B.C./A.D. boundary to A.D. 400. The artifacts also tell us that this former land surface, now some 70 to 87 cm below present lot surface, remained relatively stable from the beginning of the first Millennium to the middle of the nineteenth century when the "raise-to-grade" policy went into effect.

The Archaeological Development Plan recommends that further archaeological work be conducted at the Parker site (Genheimer 2001). The recorded features are relatively intact, and are directly associated with either Parker or his nineteenth century iron industry. Each of the features is rated for its archaeological potential. General recommendations for further archaeological work include the development of historic contexts, consultation with experts in the foundry industry, formulation of research questions, a continuation of preliminary work, and the preparation of iron conservation plans. A number of specific archaeological features are also recommended for further investigations. And, finally, it is recommended that an archaeology management plan be adopted by the JPPHS to ensure that archaeological resources are not unduly impacted by any proposed development plans at the Parker lot.

References Cited

Genheimer, R. A.
 2001  A Report on Preliminary Archaeological Testing and an Archaeological Development Plan for the John P. Parker House and Foundry Site, Ripley, Ohio. Submitted to the John P. Parker Historical Society and the National Park Service. Prepared by the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Sprague, S. S. (editor)
  1996  His Promised Land. W. W. Norton & Co., New York and London.

Weeks, L.
  1971  John P. Parker: Black Abolitionist Entrepreneur, 1827-1900. Ohio History 80(2):155-162.

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