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Sunday, March 17, 2013

CHELSEA | Saving Manhattan's Sole Underground Railway Bldg. (Updated June 1, 2016)

Julie Finch, Host of Fundraiser in
her loft home. Photos by JTMarlin.
March 17, 2013–Yesterday my wife Alice and I were privileged to be able to attend a fundraiser on behalf of the only underground railroad site in Manhattan, at 339 West 29th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues.

(I have also written about this on Huffington Post.)

This was a stop for fugitive slaves and their families from below the Mason-Dixon line to upstate New York, where they felt safe, or even to Canada if their pursuers were prepared to spend a lot of money to get them back.

The fugitives headed north in the night, guided by the Big Dipper – "Follow the drinking gourd," they were told, because it pointed to the North Star.

A major hero in bringing people through the railway system was Harriet Tubman. (Update May 17, 2015: Tubman just won a poll to be the first woman on a dollar-denominated bill, to replace Jackson on a $20.)

The only documented underground railway site on the island of Manhattan is the Gibbons Underground Railway Site at what used to be known as Lamartine Place. The current owner of the site has added an "ugly, illegal" floor to the historic house on a block that is of historical importance. The Friends of Lamartine Place are raising funds to pay Jack Lester, an attorney who has gone to court to require the landlord to remove the addition.

Fern Luskin, who documented
the historical importance of
the Gibbons Site.
Prior owners of the house – Abby Hopper Gibbons and James Sloan Gibbons – harbored runaway slaves in their home.

The house is also of historical importance because the family residing there managed to escape from the house during the Draft Riots by running over the rooftops of the row houses on what was then Lamartine Place and is now just called 29th Street.

The Friends of the Gibbons Underground Railroad site was organized by Fern Luskin and Julie M. Finch. I heard of the fundraiser via Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried and the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, which was represented by several officers.

One candidate for Borough President, Robert Jackson, was in attendance, and another candidate, Julie Menin, was represented by Andrew D. Brokman. The other two main Democratic candidates are Gale Brewer and Jessica Lappin. (Postscript: Gale Brewer was elected Borough President.)

For information on the broader problem of landmarking in New York City, visit the site of the Historic District Council at http:/hdc.org/.