NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) — Every year, millions of tourists visit Niagara Falls for the breathtaking views, but back in the 1800s, the views meant a milestone for thousands of enslaved African Americans fighting for their freedom.

“If you were coming from the south and you were an enslaved person, you just usually heard stories about what freedom looked like, that was really just part of your imagination. But if you came here to Niagara Falls you were literally steps away from seeing your freedom,” said Saladin Allah, Director of Community Engagement at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. “Not only were you at the proximity of that freedom, you were around free people of African descent.”

Niagara Falls marked one of the last stops of the Underground Railroad for thousands who made the treacherous voyage from the South for freedom. For thousands, a stop at the Cataract House Hotel brought them to a community dedicated to helping enslaved people cross the line of freedom.

The Cataract House Hotel was a luxurious international hotel that was established in 1825 and stood until 1945, but its legacy lives on today. People from all over the world stayed at the hotel — including Southerners who brought their enslaved servants — and the waitstaff helped those servants gain freedom.

“If you were an enslaved person that traveled here with a southern as a body servant, you had to interact with the staff here,” Allah said. “So there was no possibly reason that a person would not be able to obtain their freedom so it was under those circumstances that people took the opportunity when they arrived here and they saw that opportunity and had the support of the community.”

According to Allah, John Morrison, the head waiter of the Hotel, and his staff led double lives as Underground Railroad agents that would help people get to the Canadian border during their stay. Morrison had a boat at the foot of the American side of the falls that would help ferry people across to freedom.

“When you think about Buffalo, NY, we call it the City of Good Neighbors, that has a long-standing history of neighborly love amongst one another because it was also a sanctuary city that played an important role in the Underground Railroad. Same thing with the city of Niagara Falls and that’s something to be proud of,” Allah said.

Today, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center stands where the first international suspension bridge connected Canada and the United States, a passage many former enslaved people gained their freedom by walking across.

“Our mission here is to teach authentic stories of Underground Railroad Freedom Seekers and Abolitionists who lived here, who traveled through here and worked here in the city of Niagara Falls and helped aided freedom seekers get across to the Canadian side,” Allah said.

If you visit the center, you can take a “Freedom Conversation Tour” where visitors can not just learn about the past, but also have conversations on modern-day injustices.

“A lot of the things we deal with every day, sometimes people may not be comfortable having these type of conversations inside they’re own homes,” Allah said. “This underground railroad history is a backdrop that we utilize to facilitate these type of conversations because at the same way we have freedom seekers of the past, and sanctuary seekers of the past, you have that same freedom seekers today, same sanctuary seekers of the past.”

If you would like to learn more information on the Center, and its visiting hours, click on their website here.

Hope Winter is a reporter and multimedia journalist who has been part of the News 4 team since 2021. See more of her work here.