The "Champlain Line" officially dots the map of the National Park Service, Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.
Sunday at 2 p.m., the Wayside Exhibit/Interpretative Panel recognizing Rouses Point's Sportsmen's Pier (formerly known as Steamboat Landing) will be dedicated as a significant stop for 19th-century fugitive slaves escaping to points north and west. Local students will unveil the panel.
Event presenters include Geri Favreau, president of the Rouses Point-Champlain Historical Society; Sheri Jackson, Northeast Regional coordinator, National Park Service, Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program; Donna Racine, Village of Rouses Point historian; Capt. Robert McLachlan of Grays & Blues of Montreal; Jim Brangan, assistant director, Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership, Lake Champlain Basin Program; Don Papson, president, and Jackie Madison, vice president, of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association. Singer-songwriter Lita Kelly will perform.
On prior underground-railroad maps, arrows depicting routes to freedom arced north, east and west of the Champlain Valley. That mapping has changed forever due to local research conducted by members of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association.
This research was sparked several years ago at the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capitol Region. Jackson gave a presentation on National Park Service programs, and Papson was convinced there was a site worthy of national recognition in the North Country. Twice, he submitted an application for the Stephen Keese Smith property in Peru, and twice it was rejected because of lack of corroborating documentation.
Papson decided a site along Lake Champlain would be a solid selection. Rouses Point marked the spot of the northernmost underground-railroad terminus in the region.
"I didn't have any problem," Papson said. "I have a lot of references to people sent to Rouses Point from Troy, sent to Rouses Point from Burlington and St. Albans. It was just like the Suspension Bridge at Niagara."
Underground Railroad station masters and agents such as abolitionist Lucius H. Bigelow of Burlington, Vt., directed fugitive slaves to Rouses Point.
Papson found a Montreal-newspaper account of a U.S. marshall looking for a fugitive slave in St. Albans. The fugitive slave saw his master dining in the restaurant where he worked as a waiter.
"He immediately goes to Bigelow, who gets him to Montreal. Bigelow sells the house and gives the proceeds to the man's wife and sends them (wife and children) to Montreal," Papson said.
In Burlington, Bigelow owned a big house and had a separate part of the house where he took care of the people he sheltered.
"He would not permit his servants to go in that part of the house," Papson said. "He worked with a man named Rev. Joshua Young. People were sent to Joshua Young by a Quaker couple, Elizabeth Buffum Chace and her husband, Samuel Buffington Chace. They were Quakers in Fall River, Mass."
Mrs. Chace gave fugitive slaves self-addressed envelopes to mail back to her when they were safely in Canada. At the time, Rouses Point was a major transportation hub with a steamboat landing and a train terminal.
"The trains came in on a lower level," Papson said. "You could get off a steamboat and get on a train. There was a train that traveled from Boston to Ogdensburg and went on a floating bridge across 1859 by Erastus Hopkins of Northhampton, Mass., to his nephew, John B. Wheeler, the son of the university president.
"Hopkins said for the first time he is opening his underground railroad. He is sending a man, Bill. John (Wheeler) is to send Bill to William H. French, an abolitionist mentioned in Wilbur Siebert's (author of 'Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom'). Siebert mentions French as an agent, so we know he was active," Papson explained.
Hopkins cautions Wheeler not to send Bill via Rouses Point because he may be seen. Bill is sent to Ogdensburg, from which he travels to Chatham in southwestern Ontario.
"That tells us people were going by Rouses Point, and Erastus Hopkins knew it," Papson said. "This is the Vermont Road of the underground railroad. We had two major routes coming into the Champlain Valley. One started in New York City and came up the Hudson to Albany and Troy and on the lake and the land routes."
Because of the lack of trains early on, most people who came from New York crossed Lake Champlain from Vermont.
"Some people may have went through the mountains," Papson said. "For the most part, it's easier to go along the lake shore and on the land next to the lake in Vermont because it was flat. That's the way Lavinia Bell came."
Bell was born free into Washington, D.C., and kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Texas. She made several attempts before successfully escaping on a circuitous Midwest route that led her through Whitehall to Rouses Point in 1861. Bell was assisted at Rouses Point by George Edward Jones — a barber, underground railroad conductor and the son of free people originally from Baltimore, Md. — according to Bud Jones, a descendant, who lives in Ontario.
Bell's story resonates at the start of the Civil War Sesquicentennial this year. While she was making her way to Montreal, southern states were seceding from the Union.
"She signed a lease for a place in Montreal on the same day the Civil War started, April 12," Papson said. "Sheri (Jackson) thinks this is great timing. It links us to the beginning of the Civil War."
Now, Rouses Point has been recognized as a historical site.
"Sheri was really excited about what we have done," Papson said. "We have documented the Champlain Line of the underground railroad. That's the focus of our museum."
Email Robin Caudell at: firstname.lastname@example.org