Underground Railroad Roots Deep in Niagara USA
It is a series of people, places and events shrouded in mystery, allure and tales of heroism.
It is farmhouses, river crossings and church basements.
The Underground Railroad was a movement. It was a flash of glimmering hope in one of our nation’s darkest periods.
Between 1850 and 1860, the height of the Underground Railroad movement, estimates suggest more than 100,000 fugitives broke the shackles of slavery in the United States, finding freedom in Canada.
Across the Niagara region, dozens of heroic men and women worked with Harriet Tubman to operate this secret network, assisting countless fugitive slaves as they made their way to freedom. Homes, farmhouses, hotels were used as hiding places, while bridges, river crossings and trails across Niagara aided those looking to find their way.
Today, visitors to Niagara USA are able to tour numerous Underground Railroad sites and begin to better understand the treacherous path these freedom seekers traveled down.
It is what appears to be a standard 1850s-era farmhouse nestled amongst rows of strawberry patches, peach trees and apple orchards in eastern Niagara County. However, more than 150 years ago Murphy Orchards (2402 McClew St. Burt, N.Y., 14028) was a beacon to hundreds of fugitive slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad. Just a few miles from the Erie Canal, Murphy’s was a popular stop for those slaves traveling west from Virginia, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Just feet below the dirt floor of Murphy’s barn lies a secret passageway, which was used to harbor fugitives as they followed the North Star to Canada. So important, it was recognized by the National Parks Service “Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.” The well-preserved farmhouse, doubles as an interpretive center, detailing the history of the McClew family, who operated the farm in the mid-1800s. Today, Murphy’s is a fruit producing farm, that specializes in jams and jellies, but owner Carol Murphy has done extensive research and offers insight into the history of her property.
From Murphy Orchards, fugitive slaves would continue west to one of a handful of river crossings… and freedom. Many, with the help of Josiah Tryon, a secret station master in the Village of Lewiston, were able to cross the mighty Niagara River, finding freedom on the Canadian shoreline.
Today, the Freedom Crossing Monument (North Water Street, Lewiston, N.Y. 14092), a powerful 7-foot-tall bronze sculpture depicting a family of freedom seekers, being aided into a rowboat, commemorates Lewiston’s role in the Underground Railroad Movement. The monument is the second large-scale monument in the United States erected to celebrate the Underground Railroad.
Dressed as Tryon and other key players in Lewiston’s Underground Railroad movement, The Marble Orchard(www.artcouncil.org, 716.754.0166), combine historical fact, with local legend in an effort to bring Lewiston’s history to life. Wearing period attire, their theatrical depictions of are conducted at the First Presbyterian Church (505 Cayuga St. Lewiston, N.Y. 14092) where Tryon is buried.
While many fugitive slaves made the quaint village their final stop before reaching Canada, numerous others, including Harriet Tubman, used hotels, bridge crossings and ferry docks in the City of Niagara Falls to make their way to freedom.
The Suspension Bridge spanning the Niagara Gorge was first built in 1848 and served as a frequented point of crossing for many fugitives to the “Promised Land.” The bridges importance was documented in the book “Sunshine and Shadow of Slave Life.” In the book, Isaac D. Williams, a fugitive slave, documented his trip across the suspension bridge writing: “Many times have I seen the grand cataract (Niagara Falls) with its foam and roar since then, but never to my dying day will I forget the thunder of its fall or the wild swirl of waters that swept beneath us. The driver came around and opened the (train) door saying “boys you’re safe in Canada.”
Today, visitors can view the sights many of those traveling on the Underground Railroad witnessed as they left slavery in the U.S. and found freedom in Canada at the Whirlpool Bridge (615 Mill St. Niagara Falls, NY). The Whirlpool Bridge was constructed around the actual suspension bridge in 1897. It currently serves as an active International Border crossing to Canada.
Aside from the Suspension Bridge, a ferry landing (Niagara Falls State Park, 1 Prospect St. Niagara Falls, NY 14303) located near the current Maid of the Mist boat dock was utilized in the transportation of freedom seekers to Canada. Often these escaping slaves were aided by workers in the local hotel industry.
Oakwood Cemetery (763 Portage Road, Niagara Falls NY 14301) is the final resting place of many associated with the Underground Railroad movement in the Niagara Region. Those entombed at Oakwood include African Americans who had fought in the Civil War and the Patterson Family, who were one of the first African American families to own and operate a hotel in the United States. The cemetery has developed various educational programs and events that highlight the history. For more information on such events or to arrange a tour call 716.284.5131.
In 2012, an Underground Railroad Interpretive Center (2243 Whirlpool Street, Niagara Falls NY 14305) will open at the site of an 1860s-era U.S Customs House, just a few steps from the Whirlpool Bridge. Overseen by the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission, the center will use various mediums to highlight the regional connection to the Underground Railroad and serve as a “hub” directing visitors into Niagara Falls and across Niagara USA, said Underground Railroad Commission Chairman William Bradberry. The center is expected to open Fall 2012.
Currently, the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University (Niagara University NY 14109) is the temporary home to a multi-media exhibit entitled “Freedom Crossing: The Underground Railroad in Greater Niagara Regional Interpretive Center.” Featuring video, audio, photographs and artifacts, this exhibit is dedicated to highlight the regional significance of the Underground Railroad.
From the boat and bridge crossings along the Niagara River to underground hiding places at Murphy Orchards and world-class interpretive exhibits, Niagara USA’s deep-rooted ties to Underground Railroad movement are clear and waiting to be explored.
For more information on visiting Niagara USA, call 1.877.Falls US or visit www.niagara-usa.com.