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Route to Freedom: The Underground Railroad along the Champlain Canal

 
Solomon Northup
 

The canal was a conduit of goods headed to market. The corridor was a route to freedom for the enslaved. New York abolished slavery in 1827, but a southern slave could not simply escape to the North to be free. Slaves had to flee the country to ensure that slave catchers could not return them to bondage in the South. The Hudson River and Champlain Canal were arrows pointing north to freedom in Canada. Abolitionists, many of them members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), provided a system of safe houses through which fugitive slaves could make their way North. This was the Underground Railroad.

Easton and Greenwich in Washington County and Quaker Springs west of Schuylerville were areas in which those sympathetic to freedom-seeking slaves operated the Underground Railroad. Because of the secrecy necessarily surrounding the stations on the route, there is no true “map” of the Underground Railroad. Today many old houses are suspected of being stations, but are not always confirmed. The politics of the homeowner at the time the Underground Railroad was in operation or the presence of a secret room or crawl space are often the only clues to potential involvement.

Union Village, now the Village of Greenwich, was a hotbed of abolitionist activity. A few short miles from the canal, many homes in the village are believed to have been “stations” on the Underground Railroad. There is a regular walking tour of probable stations given by the North Star Historical Project (www.stealawaytofreedom.com).

The canal was certainly used to move fugitive slaves north between the 1830s and 1860s, when slavery was abolished. Hiding in a shipment of goods, a slave might come from Virginia by water to New York City, then up through the canal to Lake Champlain and on to Canada. Many slaves were escorted by sympathetic Whites or sometimes free Blacks, who guided fugitive slaves to stations along the route. It will never be known how many fugitive slaves passed through Washington and Saratoga counties, nor how many doors were opened to them. But the Champlain Canal corridor was a well-worn path toward freedom.

The mysterious pictographs carved into the Stone Bench in Kingsbury are believed to be symbols to guide fugitive slaves to freedom. Slaves were kept illiterate by slave owners, so text would be unhelpful. The cryptic “map” also may have prevented slavecatchers from deciphering the messages. Acid rain in the twentieth century has rendered the pictographs illegible, but drawings made of the symbols in the 1930s are reproduced on the historical marker. One of the pictographs resembles a boat under sail, which has been interpreted by Kingsbury historian Paul Loding to symbolize transport waiting on Lake Champlain.

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