Decision at Station Hope

As he rode into Cleveland along the Lake Erie escarpment, mornings, Ashbel Walworth was used to having the wind sting his right ear, but not talk into it.

So the morning the wind started talking, Walworth turned his horse slaunchwise down the cliff to the Cuyahoga to look. He found himself gawking down at a strange confrontation.

On the east bank facing west a well-dressed Southerner sat a fine horse. On the west bank facing east a large and ancient-looking black man sat on a fallen tree.

Between them, on the black man’s side of the river, but closer to the water, Major Lorenzo Carter stood broadbased and feather-edged to both of them. Cradling a long gun like some forest judiciary, Carter turned his head from the Black to the Southerner and back as each spoke. Not a benevolent-looking referee, he seemed superior to both and eager to be shut of this.

Of course most people spoke politely when Major Carter was around. Still Walworth was struck by the mildness in the Southerner’s voice as he addressed the Negro to ask about his treatment. Did he not think Mr. Young had used him well for a negra and given him good treatment on his place?

Carter watched the Black think, then heard him respond with a thoughtful yes.

The Southerner continued questioning ... wouldn’t the negra be physically better off in a warmer climate with his crippled foot?

The black man took even longer before he reluctantly agreed. Ben’s toes had frozen on a cliff one day and the resulting rheumatism had twisted his legs making it almost impossible for him to walk right - especially when the weather turned cold. Of course, the warm southern weather had been a big part of his decision whether or not to go north.

But the Southerner saw the opening and poured out his trump card: If Ben would return, Mr. Young would give him his own cabin!

The Negro turned to Carter for confirmation.

What men most feared and admired about Carter was direct fairness and this time was no different. Carter looked Ben eye to eye and put the decision back on his shoulders.

The Negro grasped his forehead as if to squeeze out a decision. Ashbel Walworth tied his horse and found himself edging closer, eager to hear the runaway’s decision.

Seeing Ben’s struggle, Carter suggested he remember the man making this offer was a slave catcher who would only get paid if Ben returned.

When the gentleman from Kentucky had first ridden in, inquiring for “a nigra named Ben,” he found his way naturally to the Major’s cabin, the capitol west of Ft. Pitt.

The Kentuckian had heard up river that Ben was in Carter’s town. He asked Carter very politely but pointedly if this were true.

Spitted on Major Carter’s stare, the visitor felt constrained to explain, somewhat nervously, he had been sent by Mr. Young according to the law.

The Southerner had not yet learned - Lorenzo Carter was all the law they had here at the Cuyahoga’s mouth. Cleveland was still just a scraggle of cabins astride a mud road a rod wide and a foot deep. It was the Republic’s only toehold on the Great Lakes country. But Carter already acted as if it were the seat of a new civilization even though no local laws were written.

The Kentuckian politely persisted hoping the Major would not let sentiment color his actions in a matter of property.

When Carter said flatly he had no sentiments toward Ben one way or another, the Southerner smiled. To discharge any possibility of misunderstanding, he restated the obvious - his mission was to see to the safe return of Mr. Young’s property; anyone interferin’ would be subject to a $500 fine.

Carter had no good answer.

The Kentuckian recognized the stalemate asking only to see the property face to face.

Carter eyed the Kentuckian for a moment, then laid out his plan: the Southerner should be on the east bank near the foot of Huron Road the following morning. Carter would deliver Ben on the west bank; but the river would stay between the two. Any talk would go across the water.

As the next sunrise lit the village’s eastern escarpment, Ben hobbled down to the ferry bank where Carter was waiting. It wasn’t long before the Kentuckian arrived as directed and sent a patient inquiry across the water ... did not Mr. Young have good quarters for Ben? Never raised a whip to him? Even at this distance the slave catcher could see Ben’s twisted legs. And wasn’t the weather more agreeable to your health?

Carter’s thoughts drifted back to spring when Ben had been a passenger in the canoe of a Mr. Hunter who was paddling his wife, daughter and a small black boy from Michigan to Cleveland. They had just passed the mouth of Rocky River a few miles west of the mouth of the Cuyahoga when a storm wailed in out of Canada and slammed the canoe against the American cliffs that front the lake east of the river.

The children perished first; finally only Ben was left. French traders discovered him clinging to the frozen tree. They brought him to Major Carter’s at the mouth of the Cuyahoga.

Runaway slaves were just beginning to find their way to the shores of Lake Erie, guided by no more than the North Star. The long valleys of the Blue Ridge and Cumberland mountains formed a natural trough to the Ohio. Once across there was an easy path up the Tuscarawas, across The Portage and up the twisty Cuyahoga to Lake Erie.

All through the summer, Carter nursed Ben back to a kind of health. By fall, Ben was barely able to totter his bulk around the cabin and to a practical man like Carter who would not keep somebody in town who could not help the settlement, it went against the grain. From the trail of rumors the Kentuckian had followed up the Tuscarawas, it was obvious that the Major was anxious to be rid of “poor Ben.” In fact he had even made the statement, “Niggers are no good up here.” Ben knew that.

The Kentuckian called again across the water ... and weren’t the people better down South as well?

This was not a yes or no question ... some were, others were not.

Then why, the catcher wanted to know, did Ben run away at all?

Here at least was an easy question ... Freedom!

Carter studied Ben. Freedom! Remember Carter ... remember back in Vermont when you had a farm, friends, and civilization to keep you company? What made you want to blaze a trail through a thousand miles of woods to chop a cabin out of the forest and fight malaria and disease and hunger on a frontier river with no doctor within a hundred miles?

Freedom! you wanted. That’s all the black man wanted. A man would walk the shoes right off his feet, and the feet right off his legs for that. Carter took a new look at Ben.

Carter did not at that time know that Ben was the first of an endless line who would be marching north, in spite of laws and fines, to reach this port on the lake.

The Kentuckian fired the ultimatum: Did Ben want to stay here or come back home?

Walworth inched closer to hear the reply.

Freedom or slavery? Ben was on his feet now. He did not look like a man who had made a decision. He looked more like a hound dog that had been called off the rabbit chase. He stumped up and down the shore.

Several times the Southerner was about to add one more argument. Carter thought it was wily judgment that he each time withheld. He had Ben rocking back and forth on the knife edge of a decision. Anything he added would probably lose for his client a $2,000 property.

Now the Kentuckian sent his final attempt across the river ... Mr. Young had asked his catcher to tell Ben if he decided against going back, Mr. Young would forgive Ben for gettin’ enticed away and he would be welcome home anytime.

Carter recognized the Kentuckian’s telling stroke. Could he detect a smile on the Southerner’s face? He could not.

Ben looked over at Carter as if to ask advice, but did not. He lowered his head and trudged slowly toward the ferry raft Carter kept tied up for crossing the river.

Walworth watched the Major paddle the little craft back across in silence while Ben stared at the approaching east bank. The Kentuckian was already at the landing as the boat scraped ashore. Ben climbed out painfully and stood before him. The Kentuckian smiled and put his hand on the big black’s shoulder.

The Major shook his head and strode up the riverbank to his cabin. Ben was already becoming one less thing the Major had to do.

But some in the settlement did not forget Ben so easily. No doubt the Major told the settlers in the tavern what the slave had decided, and he probably let it go at that. But even though more than a century separates us from that day in 1806, perhaps the Major did not forget that easily.

There is a sequel.

Next day, Ben and his captor made their way up the Old Carter Road through Cleveland Mills. Ben was riding and the Kentuckian walked alongside, chatting amiably. Suddenly two men leaped out of the woods pointing their rifles at the Kentuckian like two unblinking eyes. The Kentuckian stared back.

The riflemen shouted to Ben to escape.

Ben slid off the horse. His twisted legs carried him like a scurrying crab into the woods.

The Kentuckian never protested or tried to find Ben again. The account of Ben’s history recorded by Ashbel Walworth tells us that only three people knew about Ben’s “escape.” They were described as “two hangers-on” at the Major’s tavern named John Thompson and James Greer. The third person was Lorenzo Carter.

Perhaps it would never have been known that Thompson and Greer had set Ben free again. Their motives are still obscured by a veil of years. But their part of the adventure came to light that winter.

A son of Major Spafford and a young brother of Nathan Perry were out hunting in the west bank wilderness one day and became lost. After tramping about aimlessly for some hours, they stumbled upon a horse’s track which led them to a rude hut hidden away in the forest. There was only one person living there - Ben.

Ben was the first Negro resident of the Cuyahoga.

Eventually the twisty Cuyahoga became a main road to freedom. Slaves from all over the south found their way along its banks, later following the towpath of the canal that led them to the lake and Canada.

And all along the way the fugitives impressed strong men like Lorenzo Carter to help them in their journey - men who came to call themselves station masters and conductors on the road to freedom.

Later when the network of roads to freedom were established with such cunning and secrecy that they became very efficient from station to station, the network became known as the Underground Railroad.

And the station that operated at the mouth end of the twisty Cuyahoga was named Station Hope.