Underground Railroad Museum offers local resources

·4 min read

Jan. 25—PLATTSBURGH — The North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm, located at 1131 Mace Chasm Road, is a local community resource "lighting freedom's road."

In 2021, about 1,200 people visited the museum, which was opened only three days — Friday, Saturday, Sunday — due to the pandemic.

"Our organization promotes freedom for all," Jacqueline Madison, president of the North Country Underground Railroad Association, said in her video for the National Day of Racial Healing.

"And we oversee the North Star Underground Railroad Museum that tells the stories of the Underground Railroad in the Lake Champlain region. Today, I will give you a mini tour of the museum. And I would encourage everyone to visit the museum, either during our open season, which is between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, or you can call an arrange for a tour during our off season."


The decade-old museum is located in the Town of Chesterfield Heritage Center and reveals the hidden history of the Champlain Line of the Underground Railroad.

The museum and center are managed by the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association founded nearly two decades ago by Cliff Haven residents Don and Vivian Papson.

Exhibits portray compelling stories of fugitives from slavery who passed through Northeastern New York and the Champlain Valley on their way to Québec and Ontario, Canada, according to the museum's website.

Madison said that near the entry is a panel, a freedom timeline in New York State, from 1626 when the first enslaved Africans arrived and ends in 1970 when African-American men were granted voting rights with the 15th amendment to the Constitution.


The museum is the transformed home of Herbert Estes, a Grand Army of the Republic Veteran, and master machinist in charge of the Ausable Horse Nail Works in Ausable Chasm.

An exhibit depicts his life in the museum's welcome area.

"This is a picture of him in his later years reading to his grandsons from the Bible," Madison said.

"This is an exhibit to the Estes family. Herbert Estes was sympathetic to the abolitionist movement according to his family, but we have no documentation that showed he was part of the Underground Railroad. He was in the military. He was in the Union Army (Pvt. Company K of the 35th Regiment, Massachusetts Vol. Infantry), and he was captured in Salisbury, North Carolina and spent time in the notorious Confederate prison there.

"Herbert kept a diary during his stay, and when he returned home he was asked to come to congress to talk about it (imprisonment). But he read his entire diary, and you can find it online at the northcountryundergroundrailroad.com website."


The museum's three main areas of interpretation are: "The John Thomas Story," an object theater that examines the life of the self-emancipator who fled bondage in Queen Anne's County on Maryland's Eastern Shore to become a successful Adirondack farmer; "The Church Room," which looks at local faith — Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Quakers — communities' positions and pivots on slavery and the abolitionist movement; and "Northward to Freedom," which features a video of the same title, which shows how the secret network operated. Local community members were the talent in the featured video.

"My portion of it was to actually showcase that we had community activities around people of color," Madison said.

"I was really showcasing what we had in the museum that showed people — African-American, Chinese-American, and even today where you have immigrants coming in and leaving the country (Roxham Road in Champlain) because they really don't feel safe in America."


Madison's presentation illustrated how people can utilize resources in the community to learn more about race and understand the differences, conflicts, and find common ground among humanity.

"We're it as far as I know," she said.

"MLK (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee) probably would be another, but they don't really have anything that showcases MLK's work. They just do the scholarship and do a program each year.

"All the other museums, they don't really talk about people of color, per se. I think the closest would be the Clinton County Historical Association and Museum, but they just sort of talk about the Indigenous people that were here."


Upcoming programming includes Black History Month, Women's History Month, Juneteenth and Solomon Northup Day in July in 2022.

"For this region, when it comes to information on people of color, we're it, per se," Madison said.

"So you want to at least showcase that there is something in the community that students on campus and people in the community can go to learn more. I showcased the museum, and what was in it.

"If anyone is interested being a volunteer with the organization should contact us via email at: ugr@frontier.com."

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