Eastern Indiana town hopes for boost from plans at Underground Railroad historic site

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FOUNTAIN CITY, Indiana — Residents of an eastern Indiana town hope the community will get a boost from construction of a planned visitor center at an 19th century's abolitionist's home that was a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves.

State officials have lined up about $1.9 million in federal grants toward a $3.2 million plan to upgrade the Levi Coffin House state historic site in Fountain City. That plan centers on turning a neighboring house, believed to be nearly two centuries old, into a visitor center with exhibit space and an auditorium.

Coffin's family is credited with helping hide hundreds of escaped slaves while living in the house from 1839 to 1847.

Robin Winston, chairman of the state museum's Coffin House capital campaign, said the site was an important piece of the state's history.

"Quite frankly, I went over there and stood on the grounds and really was moved by the fact that so many people who were seeking freedom, who must have been scared to death, had moved through there," Winston, a former state Democratic Party chairman, told The Indianapolis Star. "I decided I wanted to be a part of this."

The planned Levi Coffin Interpretive Center is part of strategy to reinvigorate the 800-person town about 60 miles east of Indianapolis near the Indiana-Ohio state line.

"The interpretive center is the key," Town Council President Larry Stegall told the Palladium-Item. "It will bring a lot of interest and tourism to Fountain City."

The Coffin House is one of 11 state historic sites overseen by the Indiana State Museum, but it is the only one that relies exclusively on volunteers. The house is open to the public only a few hours a week June through August and school trips in the spring. That limits it to between 4,000 and 8,000 visitors a year.

The visitor center could offer year-round exhibits, along with restrooms and heating not available at the Levi Coffin House itself.

"The goal is to have it ready to open in 2016, to go along with the state bicentennial," said Mary Lou Griffey, president of the Fountain City town planning committee.

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