04/15/2013 11:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Preserving the Underground Railroad's Only Manhattan Station


Sometimes people spend years working on preserving a piece of history and they do not get recognition. And then, all at once, the recognition comes. That has happened to two people who have sought to preserve the only "underground railroad" site in Manhattan -- Fern Luskin and Julie Finch.


The underground railroad was a fictional railway line that brought fugitive slaves and their families from below the Mason-Dixon line to upstate New York, where they felt safe, or even to Canada if it was felt that their pursuers were prepared to spend a lot of money to get them back. The "stations" on thr underground railroad were safe houses.

The fugitives were told to head north in the night, guided by the Big Dipper -- "Follow the drinking gourd," they were told, because it pointed to the North Star (see -- and they looked for friendly addresses along the way.

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, 339 West 29th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues. 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 protect this historically important house. Fern Luskin documented the importance of the Gibbons Site.

Prior owners of the house -- Abby Hopper Gibbons and James Sloan Gibbons -- harbored runaway slaves in their home. In addition, the family 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 29th Street.

Julie Finch has been important in raising funds and getting attention for this site. Their work has been assisted by the Historic District Council.

The two women are being honored by the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club on May 4. As the president of the club, Steven Skyles-Mulligan, notes in the club's April Newsletter, "Not all progress is progressive." Sometimes the club, which considers itself progressive, needs to consider the cost of development as well as its economic benefits.