<em>Viewing the few ruins of old Quindaro, it is difficult to imagine the bustling river town of the 1850s where steamboats tied up.
Pieces of mortared limestone nearly lost in the brush were the Quindaro House, a five-story hotel. On the path’s other side, impressive footings show where a warehouse once stood.
At the better-preserved brewery is an arched cellar for cooling the product.
And for hiding the runaway slaves, it is said.
For Quindaro was a station on the Underground Railroad.
At night, slaves slipped away to this haven, braving whippings from patrols on the east side of the Missouri River and fearing the catchers who stalked them on the west side for a master’s bounty.
“People who were born, bred and raised right here have no clue of the enormity, gravity or the depth of the sacrifice that was made here by those towards their pursuit to freedom,” said Marvin Robinson, one of many who work to preserve the Quindaro site.
The Underground Railroad operated as an informal, secret network to help escaped slaves reach Northern states or Canada.
At its “stations,” sympathetic souls and brave hearts, the “conductors,” would hide them, feed them and help them on their way.
Quindaro briefly flourished as a secure river port for the passengers and cargo of the New England Emigrant Aid Co.
Wyandott City, Leavenworth and Atchison at that time were filled with pro-slavery men from Missouri.
As a result, Quindaro was closely linked to Lawrence, the epicenter of the Free Staters. There, in early 1858, Samuel Tappan wrote to a Massachusetts minister: “I am happy to inform you that a certain Rail Road has been and is in full blast. Several persons have taken full advantage of it.”
At least two got there in large wooden boxes in a jolting wagon, according to resident Clarina I.H. Nichols, who wrote in 1882 how “Uncle Tom’s boys could tell of some exciting escapes from Quindaro to the interior, by day and by night.”
Nichols recalled taking home to Vermont a pair of manacles filed from a runaway from around Parkville, “having drawn one foot from the encircling iron and brought the chain still attached to the other, in his hand. The man having learned that he was sold south attempted to escape and was at once put in irons.”
While she boasted that only one man was recaptured by the slave hunters who camped nearby, in what is now Quindaro Park, records show a young woman also was dragged back to Missouri.
In late October 1861, Nichols said, a fugitive named Caroline hid in her dry cistern, lowered there with rocking chair, blankets and pillows.
“But poor Caroline trembling and almost paralyzed with fear of discovery her nerves weakened by grieving for her little girl transported to Texas, and the cruel blows which had broken her arm and scarred her body could not be left. …
“All night I crept to and fro in slippered feet … whispering words of cheer to Caroline in her cell, and back again to watch and wait and whisper.”
The slavers finally rode out at 7 a.m.
“When evening fell again, Caroline and another girl of whom the hunters were in pursuit found safe conveyance to Leavenworth friends.”
That might have been William Mathews, a black owner of a hostel there.
“All stations were important and critical if you were an escaping person,” said Tim Wescott, a history professor at Park University.
Having researched escape routes here, he said no one knows how many runaways passed through Quindaro.
The legends say the slaves would reach a spot called “Happy Hollow” and drop to their knees to rejoice and pray. Another story is of “Bell Landing,” where the ringing let folks know fugitives had arrived.
Many came in small boats, letting the current ground them on the river’s curve.
The river then was much wider and shallower, with shifting sandbars and islands. The current was much slower. A night swim might be risked at low water. In winter, the slaves simply waited until the freeze and then walked over the ice.
Although Missouri’s Black Codes severely fined a ferryman for carrying a slave, Quindaro’s steam ferry apparently made secret runs — until angry Missourians sank it in 1861.
The town reached a population of around 1,200, but it went into a steep decline and was only about half that by 1860. Poorly situated in rough hills, it was largely unneeded once the pro-slavery crowd and their “Bogus Laws” were rejected from Kansas.
Its ruins are just west of Interstate 635 before it crosses the river. At the end of 37th Street, a recently built gazebo overlooks some of the site.