Around Ohio: Rest and Relaxation in a Historic River Town
Ripley, Ohio is a relatively unheard-of destination that is packed with history and small-town charm. Ripley is just over 100 miles southwest of Columbus and has a population of around 2,000 people. Sitting across the Ohio River from Kentucky, this small river town was home to several abolitionists and played a major role in the Underground Railroad during the 19th Century.
The town was established in 1812 as the village of Staunton. Four years later the name was changed to honor a hero of the War of 1812, General Eleazer Wheelock Ripley. In addition to being a port town, Ripley had a diverse industrial backbone in production of tobacco, pork, timber, and iron, as well as sawmills and a piano factory.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit Ripley for a weekend trip with a few friends. We rented a water-front, centuries-old home through AirBnB and planned for a relaxing few days. Despite the rain we experienced, we made the most of our time there. The expansive front porch on the house provided shelter for quality time of drinking coffee and watching the barges, boats, and kayaks float down the river. We took advantage of the pockets of clear skies for some exploring around the town.
Because of Ripley’s location, it became a prominent stop along the Underground Railroad. Enslaved people seeking freedom would flee Kentucky and cross the Ohio River. The network of whites and free blacks in Ripley worked to get the slaves to safety farther north. It is estimated that over 2,000 enslaved people seeking freedom passed through Ripley in the early- to mid-19th Century. Two noted abolitionists in the area were Reverend John Rankin and former enslaved person John Parker, both of whom had homes in Ripley that are now National Historic Landmarks open to the public.
John Parker was born into slavery in 1827. He was eventually bought by a doctor, whose sons taught him to read and write. He learned the trade of iron moulding and bought his own freedom at age 18 for $1,800, a sum equivalent today to almost $60,000. When he was 20 years old, he moved to Ripley and started his own iron foundry where he invented and forged many things out of iron, even receiving a patent for one of his designs. During the civil war, he spent his nights ferrying fugitives across the Ohio River and working alongside other conductors of the Underground Railroad. Parker also worked as an “extractor” – going into slave territory to bring out slaves seeking freedom. At one point, Kentucky slave owners placed a high bounty on his head. Despite this threat, Parker continued his work and helped over 900 fugitive slaves.
Today, the John P. Parker House has been restored and is open to the public for tours. Some of the iron work that Parker made is on display in the yard next to the house. Adjacent to the house is the John P. Parker Memorial Park, an acre of green space dedicated to Parker’s life. Throughout the park are plaques and markers depicting his life story and accomplishments.
Reverend John Rankin moved with his wife and kids to Ripley in the early 1820s and began preaching at Ripley Presbyterian Church. They built their house on a hill, overlooking the town and the Ohio River. Rankin worked with conductors of the Underground Railroad, such as John Parker, and assisted fugitive enslaved individuals on their journey to freedom. Rankin kept a candle lit in the upper room of his house, which was visible across the river, that served as a beacon to those fleeing Kentucky. Most of the 2,000 enslaved people that passed through Ripley stopped in the Rankin house, including one whose journey inspired part of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The Rankin House still stands overlooking Ripley and the Ohio River, providing a sweeping view of the whole region. There is a newly built visitor’s center near the house and plaques around the property telling the Rankin family’s story. Although the house is only about half a mile from the John Parker House, I would suggest driving as the road leading to the house is incredibly steep.
In addition to the John Parker House and John Rankin house, the town is full of historic buildings. There are several plaques around town indicating a significant place or person, one of which is a marker for the Witness Tree that has stood along the river for over 100 years. Although the town has its fair share of dilapidated, neglected, and vacant buildings, it’s far from being dead. Locals and homeowners are working towards a revitalization of the town and are excited about the future of Ripley.
The small town has a few dining options like a soda shoppe, diner, and pub. Upon our host’s suggestion, we opted for the Ripley Boat Club. We dined on the dock on the river and tried the recommended Broasted Chicken and Corn Nuggets. We also tried their Tater Babies and Dill Pickle Chips, the latter being the crowd favorite.
Although the town is full of historic charm and interesting sights, the best part about Ripley is the slower pace of life. Neighbors stop and talk to each other while on walks, boats drift slowly down the river, and most businesses close by 5 p.m. Being just a couple hours from Columbus, Ripley is the ideal place to take a break from the fast-paced city life for a weekend retreat full of rest and relaxation.