Underground Railroad Museum recipient of city award

Published 7:29 pm Thursday, June 2, 2016

Two years ago, two likeminded individuals met at the former Blue Door Café. Before lunch, they were simply an amateur historian and a business owner and resident invested in downtown Washington. By meal’s end, they were partners in an endeavor that would make Washington a destination on the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom passport book.

This week, the City of Washington community development planner Emily Rebert and Century 21 realtor Scott Campbell presented Leesa Jones, Milton Jones and Rebecca Clark with a Terrell Award, recognizing the effort they have made to not only create the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum but, in the process, enhance downtown Washington and its historic preservation.

The museum officially opened with a Thursday reception. On Tuesday, Campbell and Rebert were at the site, congratulating the co-creators of the museum for their work in restoring the Seaboard Coastline caboose with historical accuracy.

The Terrell awards are named for Rena K. Terrell, one of Washington’s foremost advocates of historic preservation. In previous weeks, Dr. Frank and Alice Stallings were given the award for stewardship of the circa-1820 Greek Revival-Italianate Elmwood, one of Washington’s most historically significant properties; another Terrell award went to siblings Ambrose “Buck” Lewis and Diane Lewis for the restoration of their East Second Street home. The award to the co-creators of the Underground Railroad Museum is the third of four Terrell awards to be issued in this year’s series.

INSIDE LOOK: The inside of the Seaboard Coastline caboose is lined with exhibits about the Underground Railroad and Washington’s role in the Network to Freedom.

INSIDE LOOK: The inside of the Seaboard Coastline caboose is lined with exhibits about the Underground Railroad and Washington’s role in the Network to Freedom.

“They rehabilitated and repurposed a structure in the Historic District and did it by following the guidelines,” Campbell said, in reference to how the museum was chosen as recipient.

The historic caboose, in which the museum is housed, has long been a tenant of the small green space on West Main and Gladden streets, tucked between the city’s Peterson Building and the old Atlantic Coast Line railroad depot. Surrounded by past restoration projects in the depot, Rod Cantrell’s Edward Jones building and Sloan Insurance, its restoration joins like company, in a very strategic place, Campbell said.

“This location is really the gateway into downtown Washington. They’ve really made a statement,” Campbell said. “In effect, the have been a good neighbor to all of us in town and in the county.”

Working with the Historic Preservation Commission, city planners and the state, the Joneses and Clark mapped out the museum and its restoration, pulling in as many volunteers as possible.

“No one’s turned us down,” Clark said. “It’s been amazing.”

Even when they ran into compliance issues with handicapped accessibility, the N.C. Department of Insurance was willing to work with the museum founders.

“We had to go to the state to do what we have done. We would have had to (widen) the doorway and that wouldn’t have been historically accurate,” Clark said.

Instead, the state agreed to let them keep the historical accuracy in exchange for making the museum accessible in other ways: a binder of museum exhibits inside can be brought to those outside and a flat screen TV installed at the exterior of the caboose over a concrete platform offers accessibility to any museum patron who is unable to walk up the stairs. The video playing on the screen is a documentary-style tour of the caboose’s interior and exhibits.

“Everything that’s inside can be accessed out here,” Leesa Jones said.

ON DISPLAY: A display shows the importance of hiding places at stops on the Underground Railroad.

ON DISPLAY: A display shows the importance of hiding places at stops on the Underground Railroad.

The project has been gratifying in many ways, Leesa Jones said. From a historic preservation and repurposing aspect, it’s drawn quite a bit of attention — officials in other towns who own similar railcars have heard what the Joneses and Clark have been doing and have made the trip to the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum to get ideas for their own projects, Leesa Jones said.

No grant money went into the caboose’s restoration, Leesa Jones said. The entire project was a grassroots effort that happened through fundraising events and close to 100 donations from individuals and businesses — some from unexpected sources. After Leesa and Milton Jones did a presentation at the Washington Montessori Public Charter School, students took up a collection to support the museum and donated $180 to the restoration effort, Leesa Jones said.

For Leesa Jones, the Terrell award is just the latest result of her many years of research into the Washington waterfront’s role in the Underground Railroad. In 2015, NPS officially designated the Washington waterfront as a site on the Network to Freedom — now, museum visitors can take home an NPS Network to Freedom Site passport book, complete with a map of 100 site locations and stamped with Washington’s own custom Network to Freedom site stamp.