Upstate New York and the Underground Railroad
An integral part of the history of our country, the Underground Railroad’s ascension to one of modern history’s most researched topics has been fueled in large part by the fascinating nature of its stories. Many important places and people involved in the Railroad were located in the South, but there were also many vital players in Upstate New York. The Adirondack Region and Champlain Valley, for instance, are slowly becoming recognized for their important roles in this last leg of a long journey toward freedom for thousands of former slaves.
The Underground Railroad consisted of an extensive network of abolitionists stretching from the southern slave states all the way north to the Canadian border. The Railroad’s activity peaked in the years leading up to the Civil War, when many northerners were opposed to slavery and willing to do whatever they could to help free former slaves. Fugitive slaves seeking freedom arrived from the South in Albany and Troy, and then traveled north up the Hudson toward the Champlain Valley and Adirondack Mountains en route to Canada, where slavery had already been abolished and ex-slaves could enjoy their freedom without the fear of being recaptured.
The Champlain Valley provided a natural corridor for northerly travel, and with the aid of steamboats on Lake Champlain, it was the most expedient means of travel to Canada. Whitehall and Rouses Point were two of the most important locations in the Champlain Valley for freedom seekers. Whitehall was a convenient location to board steamboats heading north on Lake Champlain, and Rouses Point served as the northernmost hub for the Champlain line of the Underground Railroad, where fugitives could find both steamboats and trains to complete the final leg of the journey into Canada.
Fugitive slaves were helped along their way by the secretive network of abolitionists, who made up the Underground Railroad. In keeping with railroad terminology, the stops fugitives made were often referred to as “stations” or “depots,” and the members of the Underground Railroad who brought them from station to station were know as “conductors.” The individuals who made up the Railroad did more than just help the freedom seekers from place to place, they fed the fugitives, gave them clothes if needed, provided a safe place to rest and even paid the fare for them to travel by boat or train.
The people and places that made up the Underground Railroad were present in communities throughout the Adirondack and Champlain regions. In Warren County, Rev. Enos Putnam of Johnsburg was an active agent in the Underground Railroad. Putnam would shelter freedom seekers in his cellar, where he provided them with food and a place to rest, before sending them along to the next stop on their way to freedom. Another Reverend, Thomas Baker, is believed to have sheltered fugitives in the now abandoned Darrowsville Wesleyan-Methodist Church, to the south of Chestertown.
In Washington County, the Wilbur House on Route 40 is a recognized Underground Railroad site. Legend has it that a fugitive slave was tracked by slave catchers to the Wilbur House, and forced into a stand-off in the attic with a knife. After the slave catchers backed down and went for help, the fugitive was rushed to the residence of local stationmaster Dr. Hiram Corliss in Greenwich, who secreted the man in a hidden room attached to his home.
In Essex County, famed abolitionist John Brown, best known for his 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry that helped spark the Civil War, may have been an Underground Railroad agent. Brown provided support for free settlements in Canada, and owned a farm in North Elba where it’s speculated he may have harbored freedom seekers. His farm is now a historical site that can be visited and toured.
Some former slaves didn’t make their way all the way to Canada; there are accounts of some, like John Thomas, who instead chose to settle in the communities of the Adirondacks. It’s rumored that slave catchers located Thomas at his home near Franklin Falls, but when they came to capture him, they were told that local whites would defend Thomas if a confrontation arose and chose to give up.
As historians continually work to uncover more information about the secretive passageways of the Underground Railroad, more sites are discovered. In Peru, NY, the Haff-Smith-Stafford Farm has been identified as a known station of the Underground Railroad. The Dimick home in Malone, NY, and the old Baptist Church in Keeseville, NY, have also been identified as historic sites that comprised this important history.
As new information on the Underground Railroad is uncovered, efforts to preserve and recognize it have increased. The Underground Railroad Heritage Trail, a collection of recognized Underground Railroad sites has been created, and in 2005 the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association was chartered by Don Papson to “research, preserve and interpret the history of slavery and abolition.” NCUGRHA has worked diligently to raise awareness of historic Underground Railroad sites in northern New York, and in the spring of 2011 their hard work will culminate in the opening of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at the Estes House in Ausable Chasm.
If you’re interested in more information on the Underground Railroad in the Adirondack region, or events and seasonal newsletters on topics related to Underground Railroad in the Adirondacks visit www.northcountryundergroundrailroad.com
–Lee Sienka is an Assistant Editor of The Free George.
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