Since 2018, tourists have frequented the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, located inside the 1863 Customs House attached to the Niagara Falls Amtrak Station. The Heritage Center brings stories of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls to life and, according to interim director Ally Spongr, it’s history that “is not told anywhere else.”
This site was not a part of the Underground Railroad but is across from what was the International Suspension Bridge, a border crossing for escaped slaves, including Harriet Tubman. It took more than a decade for the Heritage Center to become a reality, but since its opening has welcomed thousands of visitors. They come to hear “all local stories that focus on everyday individuals who worked here and passed through,” says Spongr.
According to its website, “The Heritage Center preserves the historic role of the people of Niagara Falls in facilitating freedom for the oppressed. The places and stories associated with this network of freedom seekers, free African Americans, and abolitionists evoke powerful themes in American history and celebrate the bravery of the men and women who risked their own lives to achieve the most basic rights of liberty.”
The permanent exhibition, One More River to Cross, features not only stories of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls, but also provides information about the crucial role played by its location, geography, and residents (particularly the Black population).A new temporary micro-exhibit, Painting Escape, gives a behind-the-scenes look at some of the watercolors produced by illustrator E.B. Lewis, used throughout the Heritage Center, to portray the stories told. (This exhibit runs until November 20.)
Spongr hopes visitors will take away not just new knowledge, but an understanding of how the Underground Railroad worked. “The stories we share focus on Black freedom seekers,” she adds. “We often see from the perspective of white abolitionists, but these stories focus on other individuals.”
Plan about an hour for a tour and some extra time to check out the interactive pieces. Only self-guided tours are available for on-site visits, but knowledgeable staff members are happy to answer questions.
For those interested in virtual touring, I highly recommend the Virtual Freedom Conversation Tours, offered Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. A guide walks you through authentic stories of freedom seekers. The experience is heightened by the opportunity to engage in conversation with and have questions answered by your guide.
Spongr encourages visitors to “think about the connections of past to present” with hopes that these thoughts will “lead to more positive action” in our lives and communities.
Of course, no visit is complete without a stop at the gift shop. The Heritage Center Store features clothing, glassware, books, games, and a variety of souvenirs.
The Heritage Center is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and may add more hours over summer. Guests must comply with the Heritage Center’s COVID-19 policies, including wearing a face covering over the nose and mouth, not visiting if you are feeling unwell or have undergone recent exposure to someone with COVID-19, and washing and sanitizing hands frequently. Visitors are asked not to touch the exhibits and to maintain six feet of distance from those not in their parties. Capacity is limited to 25 visitors. More guidelines are posted on the center’s website.
For more information, visit niagarafallsundergroundrailroad.org or call 300-UGRR (8477).
Worked up an appetite? Consider dining at the Power City Eatery, a combination restaurant and deli located between Ferry Avenue and Niagara Street. It’s a bit of a walk (or short drive) from the Heritage Center, which has led the two establishments to form a connection.
“We have created a great partnership with the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center,” says Power City owner/operator Joe Hotchkiss. “They have curated two different exhibits for us. The current exhibit focuses on the Women’s Suffrage movement led by Alice Stokes Paul.” Patrons can view these exhibits at the restaurant, adding to their dining experience.
Open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Power City’s menu is home to numerous tempting items, including sandwiches, soups, salads, and sides. Specialties include house-made breads and cookies, bagels, pastrami, brownies, and scones. Patrons can also indulge in a variety of espresso drinks. (Menu offerings are temporarily reduced due to COVID-19).
Power City also boasts a great patio for dine-in seating, an adjacent parking lot, and free street parking.
Judith A. Rucki is a public relations consultant and freelance writer.