“The Crossing”: Robert Dafford's Underground Railroad Mural in Portsmouth, Ohio
Hidden away in plain sight, like the operations of the Underground Railroad itself, one finds Robert Dafford's mural honoring the heroic men and women who fled their enslavement in the southern states, as well as those (white and black) Scioto County residents who helped them do so on a secret network of aid, comfort, shelter, and safe passage.
Dafford's visualization of the the Underground Railroad depicts "The Crossing at Portsmouth, Ohio," highlighting one of the most difficult passages of the freedom seeker's escape -- the crossing of the Ohio River. In this instance, the fleeing fugitives are helped across the water in a small john boat, with the assistance of armed conductors of Portsmouth's Underground Railroad.
Dafford's Underground Railroad mural is imbedded in a larger work depicting a scene at the Battle of Gettysburg, where Portsmouth's own Battery L helped secure the Union's greatest victory, turning the tide of the Civil War. The inset panels tell the larger story of the war before the war and life on the home front when Portsmouth iron workers fabricated plates for the Union Navy's ironclad warships and its women organized to provide relief to the soldiers and comfort to their widows and orphans.
Running along the bottom of the mural, as if serving as the basis for the bloody conflict depicted at Gettysburg, is where one finds Dafford's often overlooked visualization of the Underground Railroad in Portsmouth, Ohio.