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ON THE SCENE: Underground Railroad Museum marks 10 years

Tim Lansing, volunteer docent at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The Champlain Valley was and has remained a vital thoroughfare for people seeking a better life. Leading up to the Civil War, it was a principal route for runaway slaves seeking freedom in Canada.

Recently, until COVID-19 slammed shut the U.S.-Canada border, the valley was a major route for Haitians and others fleeing the U.S. and seeking sanctuary in Canada.

The journey was not always from the south to the north. In the late 19th century, following the Chinese Exclusion and Scott Acts, which barred Chinese workers from easy entry into the country, many snuck down from Canada to seek job opportunities here. Further, not all runaway slaves went to Canada. Some decided to settle in the North Country. The history of these and other exploits is well told in a small museum located in the former Estes House adjacent to Ausable Chasm near Keeseville.

On Saturday, Sept. 18, the North Star Underground Railroad Museum celebrated its 10th anniversary, a celebration made possible by the dogged efforts of Don and Vivian Papson. They, working in collaboration with many others, not only opened the museum but placed New York state and the Champlain Valley back in the public’s consciousness as a major thoroughfare for those seeking freedom.

“The purpose of the museum is to highlight the role this region played in the Underground Railroad and tell the stories of people who came to the region to gain their freedom,” said volunteer docent Tim Lansing. “Before establishing the museum, there was not much knowledge in the region about the role the Champlain Valley played in the underground railroad. The Champlain Valley was the last stop before getting into Canada.”

Don and Vivian Papson (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

In many respects, the museum’s creation goes back to 2001 when the Papsons began researching the history of Black sailors and soldiers who fought in the Battle of Plattsburgh. Papson said that their quest was launched in many respects by a member of the Plattsburgh Battle Commemoration Committee flatly denying that blacks participated in the battle, a statement they felt to be false.

As the Papsons knew that Blacks had fought in other War of 1812 battles, and Vivian’s own great-great-grandfather, an escaped slave, had enlisted in a “colored” regiment, that it was highly likely there had been Blacks fighting in the Battle of Plattsburgh. Don, who had a history major in college, decided to start researching the question.

Their research revealed that a Black sailor and a Black soldier fought in the Battle of Plattsburgh. It also opened their eyes to a wide range of activities by Blacks throughout the region’s history that included the large numbers seeking refuge in Canada in the years leading up to the Civil War. As a result, they decided to integrate the annual Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration.

Then Plattsburgh Mayor Daniel Stewart and SUNY Plattsburgh professor J.W. Wiley both made contributions to the creation of uniforms for Black reenactors to use in the annual commemoration. The Papsons soon realized that gaining acceptance for including Blacks would be a challenge because of the lack of awareness of the region’s rich history. Thus, they, and others so interested, started the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association to build awareness of the region’s pivotal history for Blacks and other disposed people seeking a better life.

“That effort started because Gov. Pataki formed an agency to encourage communities across the state to research and preserve the history of the underground railroad,” said Don. “Somehow or another, I met Tom Calarco, author of ‘The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region.’ We noticed that the agency was going around the state organizing meetings, but not in the North Country. So, Tom, Vivien, and I went to Albany where a presentation was being given, and Tom got up and thoroughly embarrassed them.”

Leg iron found renovating a town of Ausable home (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

With the state now aware of the North Country’s pivotal role planning meetings were held in Plattsburgh to foster increased research the region’s history and ideas for telling the larger story through the placement of historical markers and the creation of a museum. Key was meeting town of Chesterfield supervisor Gerald “Jerry” Morrow, who had access to the Estes House, and Margret Gibbs, then-director of the Adirondack History Museum in Elizabethtown. Gibbs had experience writing requests for proposals and grant applications for historical agencies and activities. The third was gaining the full support by Ausable Chasm, which has provided a wide array of in-kind services throughout the years, not the least, attracting a constant flow of visitors to the site.

Walk into the museum today, and it’s clear a lot of good thinking and volunteer effort has gone into organizing the displays, putting together two high-quality video presentations, and well-written interpretive copy. The icing on the cake was the donation and display of a slave leg iron found during the renovation of the former home of Pliny Hoag in the town of Ausable and donated by John and Nancy Lecky.

“Having something like this in our museum ties this history back to our area even more,” said Lansing. “This reminds us that slavery and the underground railroad are very much a part of our history.”

“I was transfixed by what a high-quality museum that it is,” said former trustee Peter Slocum of his first visit. “In three-and-a-half rooms, there is a ton of information just beautifully done. This little stone house is filled with high-class exhibits. I was overcome and said, wow, I need to become part of this.”

Of great interest is learning how critical Lake Champlain was to people heading north. While some walked or came northward by wagon or train through Vermont, the majority traveled up the lake. The Hudson River and the Erie Canal were also major New York state routes for those seeking freedom.

People traveling north for freedom is by no means a story of the past. Until COVID fully closed the border, over 16,000 had entered Canada through Roxham Road in Champlain, following the same route many used 200 years earlier.

“There was a lot of courage and trust in the underground railroad,” said Lansing. “It was strangers helping strangers. That’s the essence of the Underground Railroad.”

The Papsons, now retired from the board, are immensely proud to see the museum so well appreciated and being carried forward. “We are so grateful for all of the patrons and visitors who have come to support the museum in 10 years,” said Don.

The museum offers bus tours that showcase around a dozen of the many houses in the area used as part of the Underground Railroad. The museum is open Friday through Sunday until Columbus Day, closed for the winter, and reopens Memorial Day weekend.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)