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The Niagara Falls Section of the Underground Railroad Wasn’t So ‘Under’ After All  

By Brandon M. Stickney

 During the time of mass African American slavery in the United States, 13 million Black people were told what to do, were disciplined severely (even to death) for the slightest of infractions or rumors, were denied education, and often not even seen as human beings. 

While these bitter and horrific facts are well-known, others aren’t. 

Inside the Niagara Falls Amtrak Station at 2245 Whirlpool Street is the Falls city’s state-of-the-art Underground Railroad Heritage Center where the incredible lives of slavery’s escapees to free states and across the Niagara River come alive again—it’s quite an experience. 

Visit – Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

outside Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

Outside Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

I toured the Underground Railroad Heritage Center with other docents-in-training from the Falls Historic Preservation Society as we learned how to become area tourist guides. The center is in the city’s 1800s “Customs House,” now part of the huge, breathtaking, glass-walled Amtrak station. 

First on the station tour, we discussed The Three Biggest Misconceptions About the Underground Railroad: 

Myth Number 1: The Underground Railroad is a series of tunnels people navigated to get to freedom. In reality, there are no, and never were such tunnels. Slaves escaped over land and by waterways. 

Myth Number 2: By herself, Harriet Tubman helped hundreds of slaves escape to the northern states. In reality, Tubman was one of hundreds of thousands of anti-slavery advocates. Today’s estimates say she aided about 70 people, not hundreds. 

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

Myth Number 3: Helped by white people and Quakers (who left escape messages on traded quilts), slaves left for the northern states. In reality, there were no quilts, and only about 100 or so whites helped the escapees. And many fled by boat to Canada, aided by Black workers at Niagara Falls area hotels and restaurants. Those seeking freedom also went to Florida, which was owned by Spain at the time. 

In fact, a great number of slave escapes went unrecorded because those involved would have been prosecuted. While those in the North spoke openly about the Underground Railroad, it was a secret to those in the South. 

Some baggage-lugging and meal-making slaves who accompanied white owners to Niagara Falls for family vacations wound up escaping, guided by the Goat Island Cataract House or Eagle Hotel staff members. When word finally got out, a New Orleans newspaper warned whites in an expose not to vacation at the Falls.

Niagra Falls Underground Railroad Exhibit

Niagra Falls Underground Railroad Exhibit

Still, the Cataract was known as a 5-star hotel, and visitors included Abraham Lincoln, one of Robert E. Lee’s sons, bridge suspension builder John Roebling, and author Austin Seward. 

The Cataract Hotel burned in 1945, yet some artifacts and records remain at the Underground Railroad Heritage Center. Creatively lit walls show photographs and biographies of Underground Railroad heroes from the period and lit tables illustrate how an upscale dinner was served to patrons. 

Visitors at the Legal Geographic Exhibit Underground-Heritage-Center.

Visitors at the Legal Geographic Exhibit.

There are many more outstanding highlights in this worthy tourist attraction—including an unscheduled, free “live show,” featuring the highly varied, multi-language world travelers continuously populating the station, hopping aboard and off of the Amtrak trains, which seem to rock the station like the thunder of the Falls itself. 

During the tour, center docent Josh shared another little-known fact: sometimes a slavery-denying visitor will join in a tour of the Underground Railroad Heritage Center. 

While almost comically misguided, the denier will need special assistance from the tour guide in understanding the realities of how people were forcibly taken from other countries and sold away from their own children and families, like common goods and products, into slavery. 

It’s a guide’s job that certainly requires patience, understanding, and a calm, cool demeanor.


Photo credits:  Visit Buffalo-Niagara and Alana Adetola Arts Photography, LLC 

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