History and heroes in Cincinnati: The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

By: Virgin Atlantic

January 14, 2016

By virtue of being the first big city of the West (now the Midwest), Cincinnati is the place to come for history and architecture of the 19th century. So, it’s not surprising that the big names of the era came to town to try out their great ideas. John Roebling came to build what would be the world’s longest bridge span across the Ohio River. Planning started long before Abraham Lincoln was elected and building continued through the Civil War. When the bridge opened in December of 1866, Roebling remarked that the bridge united the country after the bitter war by making it easier to connect economically and socially between Ohio in the north and Kentucky in the south.

That connection was meaningful because of Cincinnati’s international status as a central station on the Underground Railroad, known to many due to the bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and based on her experiences in the area. Neither underground nor a railroad, it was a system of places and people to bring slaves safely to the north, where they could be free.

Today, this beautiful bridge – the prototype for Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge – lands almost in the front yard of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a museum dedicated to heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

View of the museum and bridge © Farshid Assassi for Boora Architects

When the museum opened, it brought together luminaries like Oprah Winfrey and First Lady Laura Bush, and since then there have been sightings of all sorts of high profile visitors, including His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Nikki Giovanni, Alfre Woodard, Lech Walesa, Maya Angelou, two United States Attorneys General, Nancy Pelosi, and more.

The museum attracts visitors from all over the world with its celebration of freedom in a stunning space and the sharing of the important stories of the Underground Railroad, right from the banks of the river that was the critical crossing point. Visitors can also learn more about the history of slavery in America through the exhibits, which include some shocking items like an authentic slave pen, which temporarily housed slaves on their way south to be sold. The pen was found intact on a farm in Kentucky and rebuilt inside the museum.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
The museum’s eternal flame overlooking the Roebling Suspension Bridge © Ronny Salerno

But the primary focus here is placed on the heroes of the Underground Railroad. Spend a couple of hours soaking up these inspiring personalities in the museum’s permanent exhibits, and hear from over 100 freedom champions in the museum’s interactive gallery. Be sure to head to the theatre to catch Oprah Winfrey and her story about the courage of two Underground Railroad conductors who helped a runaway slave on the journey to freedom.

After the museum, take a quick stroll over to 45 acres of beauty in Smale Riverfront Park, with views of the city and the famous Roebling Suspension Bridge. The park has all sorts of interactive installations for children to enjoy, including talking tubes, exercise pipes, a giant foot piano, kid-size chess sets, and a flying pig.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Celebrating freedom inside the museum © Michele Lea

If it’s summer, head to a Reds Game in Great American Ball Park, a treasure of a field that is just down the block, with stops to grab a bite or a drink along the way. The best place to watch the sunset on the Ohio River is at Moerlein Lager House, where you can check out the historic brewery’s latest space with perfect views of the Roebling Bridge, alongside great food and craft beer.

Getting there is easy. There’s lots of parking under the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, or grab a Red Bike and park it at a station in front of the museum. The new Cincinnati Streetcar route is also due to open in 2016.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Smale Park attracts people of all ages to play every month of the year © Gary Kessler for Cincinnati Park Board

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Written by Margy Waller

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic

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