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Underground Railroad at the SK Smith barn
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Underground Railroad entrance at the SK Smith barn
Imagine being a runaway slave with worn-out clothes, limited water and food and no family besides a master.
A number of slaves rode out their time as servants, while others ventured on to parts unknown for freedom.
Stephen Keese Smith helped make that journey easier.
Smith first became acquainted with the Underground Railroad two decades before the Civil War in 1861.
Moved by his uncle Samuel Keese, head of the Underground Railroad Depot in Peru, Clinton County, Smith joined in the movement along with his cousin, John Keese, and colleague, Wendell Lansing, who were actors.
The Champlain line of the Underground Railroad encompassed the upper Hudson River, the Champlain Canal and Lake Champlain.
Runaway slaves who reached these waterways took steamboats, barges and canal boats as part of their northward journey. Stagecoach and railroad lines from New York City and New England provided land routes into the region.
The exact way they went from Albany to Peru is unknown. The freedom seekers may have followed the Great State Road, known today as Route 9. They might have also taken Lake Champlain steamers and disembarked at Port Kent and then proceeded inland to Keeseville and Peru.
Smith had large buildings and concealed the runaway slaves in them.
“He never named the slaves in his recollections,” said Don Papson, founder and past president of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association. “He just helped them.”
Smith’s barn, which is now owned by Frank Perusse, contained a hidden stone room, which is still standing today on the old property located at Union Road.
The runaways came through the woods, exhausted and nearly famished, after having made their dangerous journey through Albany, Troy and Glens Falls.
He fed and kept them for one to two days and gave them new clothing and shoes for the journey ahead.
Once well-rested, Smith ran them along to Noadiah Moore’s in Champlain, where he took them to Canada, helped them find employment and turn them into Canadian citizens.
SLAVE OWNER, JOHN HAFF
Before Smith’s property became a place of hope for slaves, it served as a residence of imprisonment, the homestead of slave owner, John Haff.
Haff owned a 20-year-old slave, who was only referred to as “boy.”
The boy ran away to the town of Essex, in Essex County, hoping he could make an escape. When he got there, the people wouldn’t ferry him across Lake Champlain to Charlotte, Vt. because they knew he was a runaway. Instead, they detained him until Haff came.
Haff arrived by horseback, put a rope around the runaway’s wrists and made him walk back to his farm. If he lagged, Haff whipped him.
“He had been whipped a great deal,” Smith said in his recollections. “He tied the rope so tight around the negro’s wrist that the boy moaned and cried so piteously the old man could not sleep.”
Haff deeded a portion of his property to his son, Abram, who became an abolitionist, Methodist minister and a member of the Executive Committee of the Clinton County Anti-Slavery Society. In 1852, he sold the farm to Smith.
Not all houses in Peru welcomed slaves on their doorsteps. Methodists, in particular, were against the anti-slavery movement.
Chauncey Stoddard, who lived down the road, wouldn’t house or even feed a runaway. Instead he tried to sabotage the movement by attempting to catch Smith, and other homeowners who hid slaves, in action.
His plans failed.
“He used to come out until the field and hold his cane over my head and say we were not law-abiding citizens, but he did not dare to strike me.”
RELIVING LOCAL HISTORY
Stephen Keese Smith home is Clinton County’s best documented Underground Railroad site.
The North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association strives to research, preserve, interpret and promote Underground Railroad historical sites like this one.
Bus tours and the North Star Underground Museum are only a few of the organization’s many offerings to tell the story of the Underground Railroad in the North Country.
“This history here is absolutely amazing,” said Linda Richardson, second vice president of NCUGRHA. “You can read it in a book and you can read it online, but to actually go an see these places and hear the stories is just exceptional.
To learn more about the bus tours, other upcoming events or the Underground Railroad itself, call 51-834-5180 or visit northcountryundergroundrailroad.com.