By Bradford Watts, Contributor
The Underground Railroad occupies a central place in American history and folklore. The “railroad” refers to the routes followed by brave African American individuals who escaped from slavery during the mid-nineteenth century, as well as the people, networks, places and structures that collectively provided for and supported their efforts to gain their freedom.
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area
The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area celebrates, interprets and preserves the wealth of places and stories associated with the Underground Railroad found within the City of Niagara Falls and the surrounding region. The Heritage Area includes outstanding natural and scenic resources associated with the Niagara River, the Niagara Gorge, and the falls; is internationally recognized for tourism and recreational opportunities; and possesses an unparalleled density of historic resources, narratives, sites, experiences and research opportunities related to the Underground Railroad. Under the guidance of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission, the Heritage Area represents a partnership between the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the City of Niagara Falls, and local advocacy and community groups.
Interestingly enough at the peak of the freedom movement, Platt H. Skinner, in 1858, opened his “School for the Instruction of the Colored Deaf, Dumb and Blind” in what is today Niagara Falls, New York near the Suspension Bridge that crossed the border to Canada. This has encouraged many researchers to seek out the commission to support the Heritage Area project
Recently the Niagara Falls Heritage Commission has worked on an interpretive center that would initialize a journey of historic land marks and stories along the historic heritage area. Currently, The Heritage Commission is in the process of preparing a Heritage Area Management Plan, which will guide on-going preservation, education, interpretation, marketing and development efforts within the Heritage Area. A critical element of the development of this plan is active and engaged communication and interaction with local residents, business owners and other stakeholders.
The on-going restoration of the former U.S. Customs and Post Office building (hereafter, the Customhouse) has been in various stages of development since 1987. The Customhouse, located at 2245 Whirlpool Street opposite the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, was built in 1863. The building fell into disrepair after being sold by the U.S. Customs Office in 1962. In 1973, the Customhouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was acquired by the City of Niagara Falls in 2003, after which it was designated a landmark by the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Commission.
Restoration of the Customhouse is currently underway in association with the proposed construction of the International Railway Station/Intermodal Transportation Center (IRS/ITC) on the adjacent parcel, which is scheduled to be completed in 2013. After restoration of the Customhouse is completed, a portion of the first floor will house an Underground Railroad Interpretive Center and the second floor will be occupied by offices of the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The purpose of the Interpretive Center is to provide a gateway to the important Underground Railroad and anti-slavery history of the area, and direct visitors to visit other local and regional attractions. The Interpretive Center will also provide a foundation for future heritage development projects in Niagara Falls.
For more information, contact:
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission
P.O. Box 2208
Niagara Falls, NY 14302