BY PAUL BARTON
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Legislation to commemorate the Underground Railroad -- with a Cincinnati museum as the likely centerpiece -- is on its way to President Clinton.
The Senate, in a vote near midnight Thursday, joined the House in approving the legislation. It passed by unanimous consent. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, a main Senate sponsor, had moved for passage. The president is expected to sign the legislation.
The railroad refers to the system of back roads, swamps, waterways, hidden shelters, tunnels and forests that were used to move slaves to freedom from 1800 to the end of the Civil War.
Sites that were part of the railroad can be found in 29 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
The legislation authorizes $500,000 annually for the National Park Service to help private-sector officials develop a network of historic sites across the country.
Backers of Cincinnati's Underground Railroad Freedom Center welcomed the passage.
"It's wonderful news," said Ed Rigaud, chief executive of the Freedom Center. He called it a tribute to the museum's mission that both Republicans and Democrats as well as blacks and whites in Congress overwhelmingly supported the measure.
Robert "Chip" Harrod, the center's board vice chairman. called the measure a big boost to the center.
"It will position the Freedom Center as the central station, so to speak, of the network of hundreds of Underground Railroad sites throughout the country."
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center -- an $80 million, world-class museum -- is scheduled to open in the spring of 2003 near the riverfront.
The center is now working on its capital campaign, hiring an architect and key personnel, Mr. Harrod said. The bill instructs the Park Service to allocate staff to the project, provide technical assistance to develop sites and educational materials.
"This legislation will remind all of us of an important part of Ohio history . . . as personal stories of heroism and courage will be preserved," Mr. DeWine said.
Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, was the main sponsor of the bill in the House.
Philip Pina contributed to this report.