By Sandra Scott
Learn about New York’s important role in helping slaves find freedom by visiting some local Underground Railroad sites. The Underground Railroad — or UGRR — was not a railroad nor was it underground. It was a secret network of people who hid and guided slaves to freedom.
Until the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a runaway slave only had to get to a free state like New York to enjoy freedom.
All that changed in 1850 when the new act required that escaped slaves had to be returned to their masters and that the people of free states had to cooperate thus making it necessary for a runaway to find freedom in Canada.
New York state with its long border with Canada became an integral part of the Path to Freedom. There are many homes, churches, barns and other sites that were used to hide slaves throughout New York state, some of which can be visited. Because of the danger in aiding and hiding runaways, many of the people who helped and the places slaves were secreted will never be known.
Call before visiting to get information on visiting.
“New York state, with its long border with Canada, became an integral part on the Path to Freedom.”
1. The National Abolition Hall of Fame
The Hall of Fame in Peterboro is the perfect place to start for an overview of the UGRR. In 1835 when the NYS Antislavery Society tried to hold their meeting in Utica they were driven out by a mob to Peterboro where Gerrit Smith welcomed reformers, especially abolitionists. The hall of fame is located in the Smithfield Community Center in Madison County where that historic meeting was held. The Gerrit Smith Estate, a National Historic Landmark is located nearby.
2. Harriet Tubman House
Harriet Tubman, the “Moses of her people,” was an escaped slave who put herself in danger by making 13 trips into slave states rescuing 70 enslaved family and friends. She was a Union spy and worked for women’s suffrage. Her house in Auburn in Cayuga County was a home for the aged. She would tell the often-frightened slaves that, “on my Underground Railroad, I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” She is buried in the local cemetery. Nearby is the Seward House. Seward’s wife was deeply committed to the abolitionists movement.
3. Murphy’s Orchard
The 65-acre family-owned farm in Burt, north of Lockport, has a secret underground room accessed from the floor of the barn where runaway slaves were secreted on their way to freedom. The farm was established by Charles and Anna McClew who were involved in the UGRR. The location of the farm’s proximity to the Erie Canal made it an ideal location on the route to freedom in Canada. Tours are available.
Near the banks of the Niagara River is the Freedom Crossing Monument, which honors fugitive slaves who sought freedom in Canada and the local volunteers who aided them. The Niagara River was a gateway to freedom and often the last stop on the way to Canada. Nearby at Niagara University, the Castellani Art Museum has a collection of artifacts and photographs plus several informative audio stations called “Freedom Crossing.”
5. Starr Clark Tin Shop and Underground Railroad Museum
One of the newest museums connected to the UGRR is located in Mexico in Oswego County where Starr Clark served as a station master. Jerry McHenry, of the Jerry Rescue fame, is the most famous of the runaways who made their way to freedom and most likely the Oswego County portion of his journey was organized by Clark. McHenry was hidden in a local barn for two weeks before being taken to Oswego and then by boat to Canada.
6. The North Star Underground Railroad Museum
Located in Ausable Chasm, the museum reveals the hidden history of the Champlain Line of the UGRR with compelling stories of fugitives from slavery who passed through the area on their way to Quebec and Ontario, Canada, including a multimedia production detailing the story of John Thomas and his family’s escape from slavery.
Photo: Near the banks of the Niagara River is the Freedom Crossing Monument, which honors fugitive slaves who sought freedom in Canada and the local volunteers who aided them.