The hidden history of Niagara Falls

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NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) – In Niagara Falls, historians and members of the community are working together to uncover the hidden history of the Underground Railroad in the Cataract City.

It’s a deep history that dates back to the 1800’s.

A small group has spent the last decade collecting artifacts, periodicals, and other documents, trying to piece together the history of this region. Now they’re ready to bring it to life.

Here’s a taste of some of the stories they uncovered:

The Cataract House Hotel was the center of Underground Railroad Activism in Niagara Falls.

Southern families who owned slaves would often stay there and waiters would serve the patrons.

“These guys were very polished,” William Bradberry, the chair of the Niagara Falls Underground Heritage Area said.

The waiters also helped slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

Over time, these men put their lives on the line and helped so many people.

In 1853, one of the waiters, Patrick Sneed, needed help himself. Slave catchers had a document falsely accusing him of murder. It was their way of getting him to return to the south. But his fellow waiters wouldn’t give him up without a fight.

“Here you have an example of the waiters actually pulling Sneed back into the Cataract house, as slave catchers were grabbing his other arm, and trying to forcibly arrest him on a false charge,” Bradberry said.

Abolitionists also helped slaves get to freedom using the Ferry Landing. People would climb down a ladder to the base of the American falls, then take a ferry to Canada.

“John Morrison, the head waiter at the Cataract House, personally escorted a number of people. He rode them across himself.”

After word got out about the people helping slaves, Former President Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. It prohibited anyone from helping slaves get to freedom. Anyone who did would have been fined or put in prison.

“As a result of signing the Fugitive Slave Act, the pressure and the stress here in western New York was tremendous…because it began to attract slave catchers who knew there would be gatherings at the border crossing.”

That didn’t stop people like Harriet Tubman. She would often take slaves across the suspension bridge to Canada.

“In her autobiography to Sara Bradford, she recalled the story of her bringing Joe Bailey and others up through the suspension bridge,” Ally Sponger, the director and curator of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, said. “When they got to the other side, he was so excited, he jumped off of the train…because he made it to freedom.”

These stories and so many more will be told at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. The goal is to reconnect locals with their history and connect with world travelers who visit the site.

“This is a universal message about the passion that we as human beings have for the simple opportunity to live with liberty and justice,” Bradberry said.

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