Off The Northway: Likely link to Underground Railroad lost

A piece of local history bit the dust this week — or, to be accurate, it met the bite of a backhoe.

A piece of local history bit the dust this week — or, to be accurate, it met the bite of a backhoe.

The long-derelict Van Aernum house on Route 67 in Malta, which may well have once been a stop on the Underground Railroad, has been torn down.

The house, at the Route 67 roundabout across from State Farm Insurance, is on the 140-acre former horse farm where Saratoga Hospital plans to build an urgent care center as soon as next year, and maybe someday a new full-service hospital.

The white two-story house had been unused for decades, was in poor structural condition, but most importantly was simply in the way of progress.

There’s a good chance, though it’s unproven, that the Van Aernum house was once a place of vitality and intrigue.

Before the Civil War, it may have sheltered runaway black slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.

Former Malta town historian Teri Gay reported it had a hidden attic and a double cellar, with access to both the kitchen and a nearby woodshed. Van Aernum family lore says the house was a hiding place for slaves running to freedom in Canada, or at least as far north as it took to feel free.

Back then — we’re talking the 1840s and 1850s, the nation’s binding ties rapidly disintegrating — federal law was on the side of Southern slave owners when a slave ran away.

The Underground Railroad was a loose network of northern abolition sympathizers who helped runaways, sheltering them and feeding them as they snuck north.

Saratoga County was definitely part of a transit corridor. Former slaves went either up into the Adirondacks and Canada, or through Quaker Springs (the Quakers were staunch abolitionists), then Washington County and into Vermont.

The Van Aernum family sold the house in about 1980, when Jack Lake was assembling the land for what at the time was one of the premier Standardbred horse farms in the Capital Region.

The fortunes of Saratoga Standardbred declined, and the value of open land off a Northway exit grew. In 2007, Saratoga Hospital bought the property.

Town officials for a time pressured the hospital to repair the house, but it would have been costly and the town was told it’s not an appropriate use of hospital money.

Which it probably isn’t. But it’s still sad to see the old place demolished.


Most of the time, the Saratoga County Deceased Veteran of the Month has been a World War II veteran. Understandably, since those who fought in Europe and the Pacific have reached the age where mortality catches them.

But this past week, the ceremony honored a Vietnam veteran, Joe Nolan of South Glens Falls.

It was one of the best-attended ceremonies the county has had. Nolan worked for the county real property tax service office for more than 30 years, and many former colleagues attended.

Over there, Nolan was a stock clerk for the legendary 101st Airborne Division, and over here he was one of those quiet guys everybody liked. He died in 2008 at age 55.

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