Champlain Valley's Gateway to Freedom
It's in the very nature of our daily routine that we neglect to consider what might have happened on the grounds where we walk and the roads where we drive every day. If you routinely drive Route 9 over the stunning Ausable Chasm, you're following a route that was a pivotal and moving part of the history of the nation. Lucky for me, I have a job that makes me peel back these layers, and on Saturday, I went to the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum and Town of Chesterfield Heritage Center. It was an afternoon that left me eager to share this history and these stories with my Adirondack family and friends.
The North Star Underground Railroad Museum and Town of Chesterfield Heritage Center is located at Ausable Chasm and is a collaboration between the Town of Chesterfield, the Ausable Chasm Company and the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association (NCUGRHA). The North Country Underground Historical Association was launched in 2004 at the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts in Plattsburgh, New York by its current President, Donald Papson and a committee of volunteers to "celebrate the lives of abolitionists and freedom seekers...with a special focus on the rediscovery of the Champlain Line of the Underground Railroad." They also concentrate on the Underground Railroad history of seven northeastern New York counties—Washington, Warren, Saratoga, Essex, Clinton, Franklin, St. Lawrence – including adjacent areas in Vermont and Canada. The Champlain Line of the Underground Railroad encompassed the Upper Hudson River, the Champlain Canal and Lake Champlain. Runaway slaves employed boats, stages, and railroads to get to the region – as the brochure circulated at the ceremony aptly states: "Lake Champlain was a gateway to freedom."
On Saturday, we gathered to commemorate this history and celebrate the opening of the new museum. The program and tribute was eloquently commenced and emceed by Margaret Gibbs, Director of the Adirondack History Center Museum. The opening remarks were followed by a very affecting rendition of "Taps" played by Lynn Wilke, member of Camp 154, Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. The SUNY Plattsburgh Gospel Choir, led by the talented director, Dr. Dexter Criss, presented a powerful and moving spiritual about preparing for a journey to come.
A panel of speakers included Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward and Phil Estes – great-great grandson of Herbert H. Estes who first owned the 19th century building in which the museum is now housed. Papson discussed the hard work and gratitude he felt for all of the volunteers, and the impact that working on this important piece of history has had on him and his wife, Vivian. Even though the rain was falling hard near the end of the ceremony, we all were happy to stand outside and celebrate this important part of history brought to life.
After the ribbon was cut, everyone hurried in out of the rain, eager to take a tour of the beautifully renovated 19th-century sandstone Estes House. The museum houses a powerful exhibit of a leg-iron found hidden in a nearby Quaker home. Another exhibit includes a discussion of the debate over slavery and how it divided many of the churches – a subject which Papson says "has never been addressed in a museum." Other exhibits identify safe-houses and some of the men and women who assisted fugitives from slavery in our region with maps delineating some of the routes the people followed. There is also a multimedia presentation of the story of John Thomas and his story of escaping slavery in Maryland and settling in the Adirondacks. NCUGRHA asserts that the "exhibits are based on ten years of intensive research" that "prove conclusively that the Champlain Line of the U.G.R.R. was one of New York's most important routes to Canada." The Lake Champlain region is frequently omitted from maps of the Underground Railroad, and NCUGRHA is proud to bring validity and visibility to the crucial leg of the journey to freedom that passed under our feet in the Champlain Valley.
The museum officially opens Saturday, May 21, 2011. It will remain open until the second Sunday in October from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday and Holiday Mondays. During the rest of the year, they will be open by appointment. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed. To find out more about the museum go to their website at http://northcountryundergroundrailroad.com and check back here at Lakeplacid.com for museum information and upcoming events.