The Underground Railroad helped many escaped slaves get to freedom in Canada before the Civil War. The Saranac Lake region did not figure significantly in the practice, but at least one escaped slave, John Thomas, settled near Bloomingdale.
Frederick J. Seaver, Historical Sketches of Franklin County, Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon Co., 1918
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
The underground railroad had existed for years before it was given its name, but without a fixed date of establishment, as its operations were begun in a small way simply as scattered and individual undertakings, without organization. Association with it involved pitiful hardship in many instances, and serious danger in all, for participation in its work in any way was a crime under the federal law, punishable by heavy fines or imprisonment or both, and even meant death if the offender were detected anywhere in the South. As time passed, and the growing abuses and cruelties of slavery outraged more and more the humane impulses and consciences of men, it came to be worked with system and on larger and continually broadening lines. How many were connected with it no one ever knew with accuracy, though the names of more than three thousand of its workers were gathered and listed after slavery had been abolished; and doubtless there were still other thousands whose activities and identification with it escaped disclosure. The really flourishing period of the movement was between 1840 and 1860, but occasion for its continuance having ceased with emancipation during the civil war its collapse followed naturally. One or more of its ramifications extended into Franklin county.
In the beginning, and for years thereafter, the work of the underground railroad consisted solely in some courageous and fanatical abolitionist now and then giving succor and concealment to a single fugitive slave who by chance and good fortune had won his way by stealth and in terror out of the South. Then, after a time, a free black or eventually a white man of the crusader type and spirit, taking his life in his hands, would steal occasionally to a plantation, and unfold a method by which a slave or a group of slaves might win their way to freedom, or at least to a northern hamlet or city where it was promised that they should be aided in further flight. Gradually the blacks came to understand that if only they could make their own way out of slave territory, help would await them north of Mason and Dixon's line to smuggle them into Canada, where pursuit could not reach them. Thousands thus escaped; no one knows how many. In a single village in Canada there was a colony of three thousand of them at one time, and in many others there were considerable numbers.
The lines of flight lay principally through Pennsylvania, New York, New England, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, literally gridironing the country in some sections. Probably the busiest of the primary depots in the North was the city of Philadelphia, where the fugitive blacks foregathered singly and in companies. They came overland on foot, hiding by day in cornfields, forests or outbuildings; by shipment in boxes forwarded by whatever conveyance could be had, and invoiced as "goods," "property," "hams," etc., with consignment to one or another well known abolitionist who had been advised in advance to expect the packages; and by concealment in the cargoes of vessels sailing under sympathetic skippers between Southern ports and Philadelphia. Sometimes, though not often, as many as fifteen or twenty would arrive together. From Philadelphia they were sent largely to New York city, whence they would continue as opportunity could be made into New England or up the Hudson and along into Central or Northern New York, though comparatively few took the route to this county. Elmira was also an important receiving and distributing point.
Those connected with the underground railroad who contributed to keep it alive, but were not themselves active workers, were known as "stockholders;" those who accompanied and guided the fugitives as "conductors;" and those who simply harbored and concealed them as "station agents." So secret and furtive was it in its organization and operations that often one worker did not know who his associate or coadjutor was, the consideration of self-protection moving men to hide their identity. Yet it has become known since slavery was abolished that one single participant in the business aided three thousand slaves to escape, another twenty-five hundred, and others correspondingly large numbers. Gerrit Smith was active both as a "stockholder" and as a "station agent," and was at no pains to conceal the fact. While most of those whom he assisted in one or the other or in both of these capacities were directed into Canada via the Central New York and Oswego route, it is understood that some were dispatched, first, to the negro colony which Mr. Smith had founded at North Elba, or perhaps to one or another of the negro families which he had located in the town of Franklin. What further disposition was made of them is mainly a matter of conjecture, but there can be no reasonable doubt that some of them remained permanently at North Elba or in Franklin, while others were brought to Malone, and transported thence to Canada.
It is certain that one line of the underground which was considerably used ran to St. Albans, Vt., and that another, less known and not as often employed, came to and passed out of Malone, but where the latter began and the course that it followed is unknown. It is not conceivable that it was an extension of the St. Albans branch, for a fugitive arrived at that place would be as near to Canada as if at Malone, and it would only jeopardize him unnecessarily to bring him from there here. Nevertheless, of all of the underground railroad branches that have been mapped authoritatively by those who have investigated and made a study of the matter, no other is plotted in this vicinity. It seems, therefore, that it must be that Malone was a station that was only infrequently used, and that the line leading to it was kept with particular secrecy. But that there was such a line is not to be questioned, though I have succeeded in only a few instances in establishing conclusively its existence and use.
A former Malone resident whose memory extended back to 1845 stated a few years ago that many of the negroes to whom Gerrit Smith deeded homes in the town of Franklin reached their properties via Malone, having come here by way of Plattsburgh or Ogdensburg; and mingled in the throng, which was composed mainly of free blacks, was hid now and then an escaped slave. The late Henry Jones, who was sexton of St. Mark's Church for many years and a harness maker, and the first Mrs. Jones were in the latter class. […]
But Mr. and Mrs. Jones were the only fugitive slaves who risked locating in Malone, the others of that class preferring to continue into Canada or to lose themselves in the Adirondack forests. Alexander Hazard was one of the latter, and lived undisturbed for many years in the vicinity of Bloomingdale. John Thomas and Jesse Runyon were two others. Thomas was the grandfather of the second Mrs. Jones. The story used to be current in Franklin Falls, Vermontville and Bloomingdale that his former master located him, and sent agents to apprehend him and return him to slavery; that these actually proceeded as far as Franklin Falls on their mission, but that upon being warned there that Thomas was armed and would never be taken alive, and that the local whites would stand by him, with certainty that some one would be killed, they abandoned their purpose, and turned back. Runyon returned to the South voluntarily during the civil war.
In a letter a few years ago to the Franklin County Historical Society the late Marshall Conant, referring to Jabez Parkhurst, an eminent lawyer in his day, residing at Fort Covington, said: "Mr. Parkhurst was an ardent abolitionist, and many a runaway slave was harbored and fed at his home." I have before me the original record of the organization of the Franklin Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, and of its proceedings in annual meetings from that date until 1848. Mr. Parkhurst was president of the society for a number of terms, and was the candidate of the Liberty party in 1843 for the Assembly — which is sufficient confirmation of Mr. Conant's characterization of him as an abolitionist. But his residence was hardly half a mile from the Canadian border, and it seems strange that he should have taken the risk of providing refuge there for a fugitive when it would have been so easy and apparently so much safer simply to have hurried him over the line. Nevertheless, David Streeter, now of Chicago and California, but who lived as a boy on the same street with Mr. Parkhurst, tells me that he remembers distinctly that Mr. Parkhurst's home was a refuge for fugitive blacks. Mr. Streeter himself saw a number of them there, two or three at a time occasionally, and recalls that wagons often rumbled past his home late at night, and that when they were heard people commented that a train was moving on the underground railroad. Apparently Mr. Parkhurst was at little pains to conceal his work.
As having a further bearing upon the probability of escaped slaves having found refuge in this locality, it is to be remembered that John Brown, the martyr abolitionist, was himself at North Elba for a part of the time in 1849 and 1850, and again about 1854. With his fanatical interest in the blacks, and his abhorrence of the institution of slavery, as well as from references in his own letters to the cause, it is certain that he railroaded fugitives this way. […]
It is greatly to be regretted that the definite information which might so easily have been gathered fifty years ago concerning this movement in this section was not assembled and made a matter of record. Now there is no one living who knew the facts to recite them except in a fragmentary way, and a part of the interesting story must be merely conjecture.