By Joseph Keenan
The role of the Excelsior Coffee and Spice Factory in the Underground Railroad is very interesting because of its ties to strong community abolitionism. It seems that many in Paterson at the time felt the same way Huntoon and Van Rensalier did. In addition to the factory being a production output and safe haven for slaves, it was also Huntoon’s home. The man opened his own home to save many. He also generously gifted a house to William for his wedding. Supposedly, Huntoon had some of the earliest bathroom plumbing in Paterson, and always offered the fugitives baths. They used lanterns late at night in the tower on top of the house when all was safe. This signal would indicate to the conductor that they could bring slaves safely to the factory. It is quite possible the two abolitionists also had a doctor providing medical treatment among their ranks. Dr. David Neer who bought the factory after Huntoon passed would give tours of the cellars where the slaves would stay. These men, and many other brave abolitionists throughout America risked their own lives to save many.
Though I never gave much thought to saving empty historic spaces before reading about this story, I have come to conclude that It is very important to save certain historic spaces regardless of whether or not the structure still stands. Spaces that have a deep community tie, such as an underground railroad that any community would feel a deep connection to deserve to be safe guarded and memorialized. The significance of the Huntoon and Van Rensalier monument to the people of Paterson is that it is important to put something in place of where that structure use to be. The monument can tell a story, and continue to tell it for generations, long after the people who erected it are gone. For all Americans it is important to learn and understand who we are as human beings, we are not slave holders. We may have had a part of our history that we have owned slaves, but in the end, we do not have monuments that tell the story of the continuation of slavery. We have stories of the good will of those who combated slavery in their own way, and that is who we are. When I went to see the monument, that is what I could see. The ground has three great big circles that say “Let Freedom Ring”, Huntoon and Van Rensalier did just that.