With weather improving and planning under way for summer activities, consider adding some of the region’s newer attractions to your itinerary.
Spearheaded by committed volunteers, two facilities interpret important aspects of our local heritage.
By now, we all should know the impact of the French and Indian War, American Revolution and War of 1812 on our region. North Country involvement in the Civil War came not with contested battlegrounds, but with enlistments in the Union Army and fundraising on the home front. Many also became active in the debate over slavery.
North Star Underground Railroad Museum, which opened last summer near Ausable Chasm, highlights an important aspect of local participation. The museum occupies the sandstone former home of Herbert Estes, once superintendent of the Ausable Horse Nail works, an important local 19th century factory.
Introductory panels outline routes via which perhaps 100,000 slaves escaped servitude in the country’s South. Organized by dedicated abolitionists to assist escaped slaves seeking refuge in Canada, the so-called Underground Railroad included a Champlain Route. Maps and text describe the process, dangerous both for slaves and the brave people helping to save them. Several Clinton County homes have been well-documented way stations for the trip from Albany and Troy north to freedom in Canada, with other places suspected as being likely safe harbors.
Photographs and diagrams outnumber artifacts on display. However, all it takes is one leg iron, in this instance a shackle found in an attic on Hallock Hill, to conjure up a sense of the horrors of slavery.
A memorable multimedia presentation tells “The Forgotten Story of John Thomas.” A map helps trace the 1839 journey to freedom for this Maryland-born slave. By chance, he met philanthropist Gerrit Smith, who had set aside land in North Elba for settlement by freed African-Americans. It was this enterprise that attracted John Brown, who hoped to help settlers succeed on hardscrabble farms.
Thomas was one of the few people who prospered. He operated his farm until his death in 1895 at age 83. In 1872, he had written a letter to Smith thanking him for the opportunity. That letter, discovered a century later, brought his story back to the public eye.
Don Papson, president of the North Star Underground Railroad Historical Association, pointed out that although northern churches were bastions of anti-slavery activism, sentiment was often far from unanimous. Presbyterian and Baptist denominations, for example, both split into northern and southern by the beginning of the Civil War.
An exhibit room in the former parlor focuses on specific local clergy and places of worship. A quote from the Rev. Andrew Witherspoon of Peru rings out: “The day is not far distant, when the impenitent slaveholder will be renounced as a monster unworthy of the fellowship of any church.”
Another video provides more detail on the Champlain Line of the Underground Railroad. A wall hanging honors those known to assist in the endeavor. There’s information on Brown, and also on Solomon Northup, a free black from
Washington County who was kidnapped in 1841 and taken in chains to the South. His book, “Twelve Years a Slave,” written after he finally regained his freedom, became a 19th century best seller.
Albums of clippings and stereoscopic photos further enhance a visit.
MINING AND RAILROAD
Upon entering the Mining and Railroad Museum in Lyon Mountain’s former railroad station, one immediately faces a huge photograph of a mine shaft. It’s a strong introduction to this remarkable testament to the village’s longtime iron industry.
If possible, take advantage of a comprehensive introduction from a staff volunteer. That way, you’ll develop a sense of the dangerous work involved below ground and the processes by which raw ore gets transformed into pig iron ready for industrial use.
Referring to photos, text and selected artifacts, Museum Board President Margo Kourofsky explained the miners’ work. One picture showed the “man hoist,” a double-decker skip on which miners traveled a 63-degree shaft 2,300 feet deep into the ground. A diagram showed the subterranean complex of vertical “raises” and horizontal “drifts” along which miners would walk to the day’s work. Lunch would be eaten in dugout “shanties” with benches and stove.
Drilling, blasting and pounding would result in iron-laden rock being dropped down chutes into ore cars. A first round of crushing took place on the lowest level. Then counterweighted “skips” brought the stone to the surface for transport to other buildings of the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Company, later to become Republic Steel.
More photos traced the route to the concentration plant for further crushing and electromagnetic separation. Addition of coal and water at the pug mill turned the processed rock into a paste. At the sintering plant, this conglomerate moved slowly on long conveyor belts until dried sufficiently for transport to a furnace for firing. Until 1939, the ore went to furnaces in Standish (later it was sent to Troy) for conversion into pig iron.
In one corner, there’s a model of raise drilling, with a life-size mannequin of a miner. Nearby is a replica “chute puller” crafted by a former miner. Used to unclog chutes, it’s a long pole with sticks of dynamite at its end. One quickly gets the picture of how it worked. Not surprisingly, lives were lost in its use.
Now I was ready to scrutinize a remarkable diorama built for the museum by Bill Kissam and Jim Davis in 2010. For people like myself, who moved to the area well after the mines were closed, it’s stunning to see how big this operation once was. Only a few remnants still stand, including the old “number three mill.”
The diorama doesn’t stop with the surface. Multiple levels underground are depicted, giving a sense of how chutes filled ore cars, workers traveled ladders and manway raises, and pillars were left for support. For me at least, more than a single visit will be required to master all the detail.
Artifacts on display ranged from carbide lamps and their oil-fueled predecessors, to power-house gauges and vintage stopers (drilling machines), to lunch pails and ID badges. Above our heads was a row of helmets. Plaques on a Memory Wall denote those men who died in the mines.
Quite poignant are such ephemera as the April 24, 1967, letter from Republic Steel announcing the final shutdown in 1967, and a letter updating the community on the status of an injured miner. On DVDs at various intervals, interviewed miners add further insight.
Kourofsky pointed out the “product corner.” High quality made this iron valuable for cables supporting the Brooklyn, George Washington and Golden Gate bridges. Whimsies, such as goblets and a paperweight, were crafted by miners in their free time.
A Station Agent’s office has been reproduced, complete with telegraph keys and a message hoop for transferring mail to passing trains. The Baggage Room hosts activities for kids, including a model train and experiments with magnetism. One case holds a mineral display; another features Delaware and Hudson Railroad memorabilia.
In the former Ladies’ Waiting Room (yes, sexes waited for trains separately once upon a time), the museum mounts changing exhibits. Opening this year is one on nearby Chazy and Chateaugay lakes. Everyday life is remembered with such antiques as ice-cutting tools. Attention also gets paid to the once-vibrant resort presence.
Both of these museums are gems. Each cogently tells an important story. Each also reminds us of the important roles volunteers can play in promoting our heritage. They are welcome additions to our North Country roster of satisfying, educational venues.