Roadtrip! / The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center
A vital era in local and national history comes alive
Staffer Christina Beauvoir looks on as a visitor interacts with a display.
Photos by Alana Adetola Fajemisin
Best for: Families, educational tours, history buffs
825 Depot Avenue West, Niagara Falls
30 minutes • 22.4 miles
I-190 N -> NY 182 W
At one time, Niagara Falls, New York, was a destination for something much more than tourism. It also loomed in the chatter and dreams of enslaved African Americans as prominently as the biblical land of Canaan. Sheltered by the Underground Railroad, a covert network of people aiding runaway fugitives on their journey, blacks found their way to this bottleneck town from every part of the country. From here, it was only a short boat ride to Canada, where the fear of recapture could be laid aside.
The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, aptly located today next to an actual train station, is a tiny space that packs a powerful punch. Maps, video, and displays demonstrate Niagara Falls’ historic role in that hopeful northern migration, when slave owners, free blacks, hotel workers, and everyday residents mingled with tourists. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 added freelance bounty hunters to the mix.
Compelling stories came out of this history. In order to illustrate just one, the center has recreated a model of the Cataract House dining room, a five-star hotel with marble detailing and a waitstaff comprised entirely of black people. In this model, the story of Patrick Sneed is told. Sneed ran away from enslavement in Georgia in 1849 and worked as a waiter at the Cataract until authorities came to arrest him in the summer of 1853. Sneed yelled for help, and the entire staff of waiters sprang into action, forcibly dragging him from the custody of the officers.
This and other enthralling stories are recounted to vistors by tour guides like Saladin Allah, a direct descendent of Josiah Henson, a former slave whose reminiscences influenced much of what became the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “Freedom is still an elusive idea for all types of people,” says Allah.
The center can be toured in ninety minutes or so, leaving plenty of time for lunch and a visit to the city’s other significant attraction.
Just down Main Street from the UGRHC is The Book Corner, a large, three-story treasury of new and used books.