Underground Railroad Center to Revitalize Gasholder Grounds

Xiaoqian Zhu

After seven years of planning, the Oberlin Underground Railroad Center expects to move forward with Phase II of its implementation plan this spring by breaking ground on a new Park-&-Ride facility near the Gasholder Building. The project will be paid for through a combination of donations and state funding.

The Gasholder Building, pictured above, will become the new Oberlin Underground Railroad Center. The project has already been implemented and is currently in Phase II.
Briana Santiago, Staff photographer
The Gasholder Building, pictured above, will become the new Oberlin Underground Railroad Center. The project has already been implemented and is currently in Phase II.

The OURC will install restroom facilities, an open bike shelter, a picnic center and 22 new parking spaces along the North Coast Inland Trail. Sidewalks will also be added to the trail, which runs down Edison Street.

There has been widespread support for the conversion of the Gasholder Building into a historical site and tourist gateway. The OURC raised more than $8,000 in donations from local organizations, businesses and community members at a fundraiser last October.

The OURC will function as an educational site and transportation hub. It will make use of the updated Gasholder Building to raise awareness of Oberlin’s historical role in the anti-slavery movement and honor African-American heritage.

“Oberlin was a very strongly abolitionist town,” said Elizabeth Schultz, executive director of the Oberlin Heritage Center. “Numbers vary, but a significant number of people did come through Oberlin on their way to freedom, and most people would continue through Oberlin up to Lake Erie, where they would find boats to take them up to Canada.”

Programming in the OURC will include lectures, participatory activities, interactive displays and theater and dance productions designed to highlight Oberlin’s role as Station 99 on the Underground Railroad.

The OURC Implementation Team has broken Phase II into two parts, said Diane Ramos, administrative coordinator and secretary of the OURC Implementation Team.

Phase II A involves the construction of parking spaces, the addition of underground utilities and preparation of the land surrounding the Gasholder Building. Funding is coming from the State of Ohio Capital Budget.

Phase II B will use grant funding from the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency matched by the city and the OURC Implementation Team. A bike shelter, picnic area and sidewalks will be constructed at the site.

“With Phase II plans underway, the OURC Implementation Team is focusing on its other responsibilities to fundraise for the project and to act as a community liaison for the project. As such, the Team is working to develop a speaking series that will include topics such as African-American history in Oberlin, quilt-making, slave songs and spirituals,” Ramos said.

According to Ramos, the team anticipates Phase II to be completed in its entirety by summer 2017. Afterward, the third and final phase of the project will cover interior renovations for the Gasholder Building and future programming for the OURC, Ramos said.

“It’s great that they could repurpose a historical building to tell these stories,” Schultz said.

The College has also been a resource for the OURC in the months leading up to Phase II.

“We have hired students and alumni to create some of our promotional materials, including a promotional video and the design of the OURC logo,” Ramos said. “Students and faculty have also participated in some of our programming events.”

The OURC Implementation Team will be expanding its community outreach efforts by developing a quarterly newsletter to provide updates on the project.

Tony Mealy, a member of the OURC Implementation Team, said that student organizations at the College could still get involved.

“There are a number of organizations on campus that might be able to assist us, because we have to raise funds to match the government grants, along with other funds we received, to go forward with this,” Mealy said.