When John Lecky, a local citizen, renovated a farmhouse on Hallock Hill Road between Keeseville and Harkness, he discovered a leg iron, or shackle, under the floor boards at the top of the stairway leading to the attic.
The house had been built in 1820 by Pliny Hoag on approximately 190 acres owned by his father, David Hoag, who was a member of the Quaker Union. The North Star Underground Railroad Museum concluded that the Hoag family had provided assistance to at least one slave as represented by the leg iron, which can be seen on the Underground Railroad Museum bus tours.
The two-hour tour leaves the North Star Underground Railroad Museum Aug. 16 at 9:30 a.m. The cost is $10 per person, and reservations are suggested.
“This year is the third year we’ve done the tours, and they’ve been quite successful,” said Linda Richardson, first vice president for the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association (NCUGRHA) and tour guide for the bus tours. “It’s not a very extensive tour, but it gets the story out of how strong this area was and how they helped people to seek the freedom that they deserved.”
The museum can be visited before or after the tour, which takes passengers to a number of anti-slavery sites in Keeseville and Peru.
The Champlain line of the Underground Railroad encompassed the upper Hudson River, the Champlain Canal and Lake Champlain.
Runaway slaves who reached these water ways 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.
It’s unknown the exact way they went from Albany to Peru. The freedom seekers may have followed the Great State Road from the Southern Adirondacks to Clinton County. They might have also taken Lake Champlain steamers and disembarked at Port Kent and then proceeded inland to Keeseville and Peru.
However, one thing remains fact, which is that one Clinton County route to Canada, which fugitive slaves followed, took them through the villages of Keeseville, Peru and Champlain, containing important sights that will be covered during the bus tour.
“Most churches had conflict between members over the anti-slavery issue,” Richardson said. “Some churches forbid slave owners from taking communion or speaking from the pulpit.”
One of the first places the tour visits is the Methodist church, where the tour will talk about the church, Reverend Bates, a very outspoken abolitionist, and their discussions on political issues such as slavery.
Next, the tour will head to the Masonic Lodge, which used to be the Congregational church that was built in 1851. A member of this church, Asahel Arthur, signed documents in order to start the Clinton County Anti-Slavery Society, and lived in the house behind the church, which now has an Underground Railroad marker in front of it.
“Oral history has stated that in the home behind the church, a couple of school boys found a hatch in the floor in one of the rooms,” Richardson said. “There was a tunnel, and that tunnel came from the church over to that home.”
The last church they visit is the old Baptist church, a church that is now an apartment but used to be a place where many anti-slavery meetings were held. This church is also located in front of the oldest burial ground where a black child and a former slave are buried.
“It’s called the old burial ground,” she said. “They used to nickname it the ‘Nigger Cemetery.’”
This burial ground, located behind the old Baptist church, remains unreachable because of a lack of upkeep and a lot of poison ivy. Even though the cemetery can’t be entered, a list of the names of all the people in the cemetery are known and listed.
Another cemetery the tour visits is the Evergreen Cemetery, a new addition to the tour this year, which is where Wendell Lansing, an abolitionist, and his great granddaughter, Marjorie Lansing Porter, the Arthur family and some of the descendants of the Keese family that Keeseville is named after were buried.
The last cemetery of the tour is situated in Peru called the Quaker cemetery on Union Road, the burial ground of Catherine Keese, wife of Samuel Keese, who was the head of the Underground Railroad Depot in Peru.
“She was always described as a very kind and sincere woman in helping those who were seeking freedom,” Richardson said.
The Quaker cemetery lies on the right hand side of the road with the two Quaker meeting houses on the left. Northern Orchard was the home of Samuel and Catherine Keese. Further down the road is the Stephen Keese Smith home and barn, one of Clinton County’s best documented Underground Railroad sites.
Before Smith’s barn became a place of hope for slaves, it was a place of imprisonment, a homestead by slave owner, John Haff.
During this time, Haff owned a 20-year-old slave, who was only referred to as the “Negro” boy. The boy ran away to Essex, hoping he could get away from Haff. When he got there, the people wouldn’t ferry him across the lake to Charlotte, VT, because they knew he was a runaway. Instead, they detained him until Haff came.Haff arrived by horse back, put a rope around the runaway’s wrists and made him walk back to his farm. If he lagged, Haff whipped him.
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.
Smith first became acquainted with the Underground Railroad 20 or so years ago before the Civil War. During this time, his uncle, Samuel Keese was the head of the depot in Peru, and his cousin, John Keese, and Wendell Lansing were actors.
Smith had large buildings and concealed fugitives from slavery in them. He kept them, fed them and gave them shoes and clothing. The runaways came through the woods, exhausted and nearly famished, after having made their dangerous journey through Albany, Troy and Glens Falls.
Smith kept them from one to two days and then ran them along to Noadiah Moore's in Champlain. Moore took the runaway slaves to Canada and looked for places for them to work.
Smith's barn, which is now owned by Frank Perusse, has a hidden room, and it is one the places where Smith was able to conceal people. The barn’s much needed restoration must rely on donations, grants, and other projects such as the bus tours.
"Our vision is to restore the barn so that it can be an outdoor museum," Richardson said. "It needs a lot of work."
"The North Star Underground Railroad Museum , which NCUGRHA operates for the Town of Chesterfield, celebrates the persistence and patience of people who endeavored for months and years to seek freedom," Richardson said. "Rather than focus on slavery and what it was like to be owned as property, we like to look at our abolition history as a celebration for the people who obtained the freedom they sought."
The museum reveals the hidden history of the Champlain Line of the Underground Railroad. The museum, and its Heritage Center, are managed by NCUGRHA.
"The history here is absolutely amazing," Richardson said. "You can read it in a book, and you can read it online, but to actually go and see these places and to hear the stories is just exceptional."
Besides the upcoming tour Aug. 16, the museum hosts tours every other Saturday. If anyone would like to learn more about the tours or make a reservation, call 518-834-5180 or visit northcountryundergroundrailroad.com.