Friday, June 20, 2008

Lyles Station: Jewel of American History

I am opposed to the whole system of slavery, in all its heinous forms, and conscientiously believe it to be a sin against God and a crime against man to chatelize a human being, and reduce God's image to the level of a brute, to be bought and sold in the market as cattle or swine.

- Levi Coffin, Letter to the editor of the Cincinnati Commercial dated May 12, 1860


A few miles from the town of my birth--Princeton, Gibson County, Indiana--lies an almost hidden jewel from our Hoosier past and a priceless piece of American history from the 1800's. It is the unincorporated area of Lyles Station.

Originally known as the "negro colony" west of Princeton, it was comprised of three settlements by free African-Americans, Southerners and former slaves--Sand Hill, Lyles and Roundtree. Sand Hill was on the main road, now State Highway 64, about halfway between the Wabash River and the county seat of Princeton. Lyles was north about a mile, and Roundtree was further north and east on the banks of the Patoka River.

Though I spent many a summer visiting family in the area just to the east of Lyles Station, I had no clue that it even existed. I don't remember my grandparents, aunts or uncles ever speaking of the "colored folks" from the river bottoms west of town. Nonetheless, a thriving agricultural community existed there until the floods of March 1913. In fact, the train that ran just downhill and around my grandparent's home and the hospital where I was born, used to stop at Lyles Station on it's way to Illinois through the 1950's. Still, I had no idea there was a veritable treasure trove of American history just a few miles down the tracks. That is until I learned about it online just a few years ago, thanks to the tireless efforts of Stanley and Mary Madison (Pictured above right, Wayman Chapel AME Church, the oldest building in Lyles Station dating back to 1887).

This week was my first visit to the area called Lyles Station (see picture above). The Madisons and the Lyles Station Historic Preservation Corporation were celebrating Juneteenth and I was able to take my family down for the festivities. Before the trip, I was already committed to volunteering my time to help in any way I could. But afterwards, my resolve to help out is even more concrete. My first goal is to register the site as an official stop along the famed Underground Railroad (UGRR) with Indiana Freedom Trails, Inc.

The western route of the UGRR through Indiana is well-documented. The Wabash River valley through southwestern Indiana provided a means of escape for runaway slaves who were brave enough to cross the Ohio River near Mount Vernon (Posey County) and Evansville (Vanderburgh County) or traverse the meandering Wabash up to East Mount Carmel, then head northwards to Vincennes. Free African-American settlements in Gibson County would provide a common-sense resting place for fugitive slaves escaping north. There are oral traditions that say Thomas Cole, a Sand Hill/Lyles resident, owned many barns with hideouts in the lofts that provided cover by day for many a fugitive. Within walking distance of the Cole residence and uphill towards the banks of the Patoka River sat the home of noted station master David Stormont. Other UGRR stops existed in nearby Princeton, Francisco and Oakland City. Some of these are also well-documented, but the area of Lyles Station is yet listed as an integral part of the railroad.

As my research continues, I'll post more about this exciting project and enlist some of you to help. In the meantime, please visit http://www.lylesstation.org/ to learn more about this jewel of American history.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was wondering what peaked your interest about Lyles Station and why have you waited so long to visit this "hidden treasure" from your childhood home?

Hope Pinkit said...

What an interesting story to follow. I cannot wait to see what else you uncover about this "jewel".

Chris said...

my interest was piqued when i found the website a few years ago, then i adopted a biracial baby and thought what better way to share in that part of her heritage...also, i was intriqued because this settlement was so close to my childhood home and my uncle had done some research for his pictoral history called "Prince Town," so I guess I inherited my interest in history of the area from him

Anonymous said...

This is great work! I'm a Gist genealogist. I discovered Princeton Indiana's David Stormont while researching my family history. David Stormont was instrumental in a rescue attempt of my ancestors, Peter Gist's family. William Still's book THE UNDERGROUND RAiLROAD gives a fascinating account of the role Mr. Stormont played in this courageous mission.

Do you know if a historical marker dedicated to David Stormont exist?