By SHAUNIE CADIEUX
CHESTERFIELD — The Estes House in Chesterfield will be turned into a Visitors Interpretive Center.
The historic structure has been donated to the town by Ausable Chasm and will also serve as an exhibit area for the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association.
While the town will own the building, it's a situation where three organizations are working together for the good of the area, Chesterfield Town Supervisor Gerald Morrow said.
The town will maintain the structure itself, while the Underground Railroad organizes volunteers to staff the site, and Ausable Chasm takes care of lawn maintenance and provides water and sewer.
"It doesn't get any better than that, Morrow said.
Although the North Country is often said to be lacking diversity, Don Papson, president of the North Country Underground Railroad Association, argues emphatically that such is far from the truth.
"There's been diversity here since the beginning, and people need to know that."
His passion for history is the main reason he became the primary researcher and founding member of the Underground Railroad Association.
"When I learned that Governor Pataki had set aside some money in order to encourage the promotion of the Underground Railroad history of all of New York, I started getting really interested," Papson said.
He became engaged in local history, unearthing a past deeply ingrained in diversity.
The 19th century Estes House was originally owned by Civil War soldier Herbert Estes, and some of the exhibits to be housed there will be based on the narratives of the abolitionists and slaves who searched for freedom along the Champlain line of the Underground Railroad.
It will be part of a series of centers that are being developed along the Lakes to Locks passage, a byway that connects what Papson calls "the waterways to freedom": the Hudson River, Champlain Canal, Lake George and Lake Champlain.
"The executive director of Lakes to Locks, Janet Kennedy, was aware that the Town of Chesterfield wanted to develop an interpretive center and that our association needed a place," Papson said.
The Ausable Chasm Corp. offered help, agreeing to turn ownership of the Estes house over to the Town of Chesterfield.
"It's a win, win situation," Papson said. "People who already come to the chasm will have another place to visit while there, and people who come to learn about it (the Underground Railroad) will also be able to go to the chasm. The tourist commission and location will be ideal."
Morrow had to work out kinks with liens, grants, two banks and other issues to make the deal happen.
After some person-to-person communication, the tides began to change.
"It's finally cleared up and now that we have the house lien-free, we are going to start the process of renovations and hopefully open for business next summer, when the Chasm opens in June," Morrow said.
Renovation plans include asbestos removal, handicapped accessibility and a more efficient heating system, he said.
"We're going to keep as much of the history there as we can.
"Tourists coming through the area will be stopping in there. I'm always looking at trying to help out the sales tax, to take (the burden) off the property tax. If nothing else, it'll help; everything helps."
Morrow said he has learned more about his region's history during the process.
"I wasn't that aware of what the Underground Railroad did until this project, but now I am much more interested.
"People, in general, are not aware about what the Underground Railroad is, what they talk about, what they've accomplished — it's very exciting."
Morrow said the organization "will enlighten a lot of people."
Papson agrees that the Visitors Center will increase knowledge and help the Underground Railroad Association continue to grow.
"People are starting to come forward with their stories," he said. "We're getting connections to the history — living connections. That's why having a center like this is really important."