AUSABLE CHASM — Back in February, North Country Underground Railroad Association representatives sat down with Town of Chesterfield Supervisor Gerald “Jerry” Morrow about the former Union soldier Herbert Estes’ house.
The two-story stone building is perched on the hill above Ausable Chasm, and it has been the home of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm since 2011.
STANDING ON ITS OWN
“For years, the North Country Underground Railroad has been managing the museum down there,” Morrow said.
“That’s their business, but the town has been paying the fuel, electricity and the insurance and everything else.”
The town owned the property, but they didn’t pay for it. It was given to them by the Ausable Chasm Company, which had the right of first refusal if the town ever decided to get rid of the property.
Over several years, Morrow started letting the association take over the payments for the utilities one by one.
“Now, they’ve been paying all the expenses, so it’s not a taxpayer’s burden,” Morrow said.
“Now is the right time to deed over to the North Country Underground Railroad, and the Town Board approved it.”
The Ausable Chasm Company also signed off on the deed.
“Because the town wasn’t using it at all,” Morrow said.
“It wasn’t nothing for us. This way, they take care of it. They run it, and it’s the perfect solution. It helps saves tax dollars.”
WAITING TO EXHALE
Though the conversation started in February, there was a 30-day petition period for residents to state grievances against the transferal of the property.
“Nothing came out of that,” Jackie Madison, association president, said.
“That was a 30-day process, and in the interim we learned that since no one had signed a grievance that they could actually start the deed to turn everything over with the approval of the Town of Chesterfield and the Board of the Ausable Chasm Co.”
The museum receives more than 5,000 visitors a year, and shares visitors from the Chasm, especially on inclement days and hours when they are waiting for the weather conditions to clear.
“They can have them come up to us and do other little things like that, and they can try to retain some of their customers,” Madison said.
Town attorney Michael McCormick handled the transaction, which required the signatures from the Ausable Chasm Company and association representatives.
“We’re property owners,” Madison said.
“We have .41 acres, the building itself, the little lot out there. We still have the arrangement with the Chasm where they can park.”
There is a caveat in the deed, where if the association no longer wants to use the building, it has to give the Ausable Chasm Company a 30-day notice to approve a potential buyer.
The museum is filled with exhibits that interpret the Champlain Line of the enslaved people of African descent, who fled to freedom here and points elsewhere, and the people who helped them in the state and out of state.
“We have no space here,” Madison said.
“One of the issues is we have, especially in July and August, a lot of people come to visit and we only have one bathroom downstairs.”
The association also needs more storage space as well as making the building compliant with the American With Disabilities Act.
The main exhibits are reachable by wheelchair, walker or cane downstairs, but the association does have archives located upstairs.
“We don’t have a presentation area,” Madison said.
“We use that ‘Northward to Freedom’ Room. That’s probably as big as we can get , but it’s kind of an L-shape. If we could expand out where the deck is maybe. We’re still working with this. That’s probably one of the bigger places.”
The association is working with Fred Kiel Architecture to address its concerns.
“He has donated his services, and he’s helping us,” Madison said.
“We also want a presentation area, so that we have enough room for 50 to 75 people. We want this to still be a community place, and we also need more exhibit space and that could be sort of a multi-function for that as well.”
IN THE WORKS
The association is also working on the getting the museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“This is our ninth year of operation,” Madison said.
“It’s pretty fast if you think about it. We’re also the Town of Chesterfield Heritage Center, and we will continue that.”
Outside the museum, there is a designated place for brochures for area attractions, which the docents refer visitors too.
The association recently hosted the inaugural Town of Chesterfield Open House, which attracted neighbors, local businesses, organizations, and historians.
The association has not received its copy of the deed.
“Everything was done, and I think that’s just spectacular,” Madison said.
“A new chapter.”
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