Visitors to Niagara County can learn more about the area through Autio, a road-trip app designed to bring history to life through narrated stories of the people, places, and events that are unique to a specific area. And many of those stories were written by Dr. Hope L. Russell, adjunct professor of women’s studies at Niagara University.
For the past several years, Dr. Russell had been working with Sara Capen, executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, Inc., to write detailed histories of the local area. When the NFNHA partnered with Autio in 2022, Capen asked her if she would be interested in writing the vignettes for the app, which was founded by actor Kevin Costner and is also accessible on JetBlue flights.
“When Sara first told me about the Autio project, I was immediately captivated because it sounded like such an interesting and important project,” Dr. Russell said. “Through partnering with Autio, and by writing the stories, we are bringing local history to life for our listeners. I also liked the challenge of researching and writing about local history in ways that would appeal to our listeners, and of finding interesting, engaging, and colorful details about the people and places I’m writing about. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts, so I try to tune into not only how my stories are written, but also how they will sound when narrated by professionals.”
Dr. Russell’s love of local history was ignited by her parents, who took her to parks, tourist attractions, and historic, arts and cultural locations around Western New York. As an adult, she has continued to pursue this passion, visiting these kinds of places both locally and around the country. This new project has allowed her to focus on the Niagara Falls, N.Y., area, and given her new destinations to visit, both for work and leisure.
Her work for Autio has included historical vignettes on significant abolitionists, freedom seekers, suffragists, civil rights leaders, community leaders and activists, and other local history makers in Niagara Falls and greater Niagara County. She has written about the people, churches, homes, farms, and border crossings involved in the Underground Railroad, and profiled significant businesses and institutions, churches and synagogues, landmarks, monuments, and historical figures in Niagara Falls. She also incorporates this research into the curriculums of the three courses she teaches at Niagara University.
“I’m writing a lot of lesser-known histories: the stories of women, people of color, immigrants, religious minorities, and so forth,” Dr. Russell said. “We are shining a bright and powerful light on the histories, and the people and the places behind those histories, that, for so long, have been unknown and not even considered a part of dominant histories of Niagara Falls. Often, this takes a lot of digging and detective work—which I also really love!”
Dr. Russell’s work dovetails some of the research projects she has done for NFNHA, including book-length studies on Suspension Bridge Village, the Pine Avenue/Little Italy neighborhood, and the Highland Avenue community. She is currently working on two other studies: a history of the Niagara Falls City Market (1893-2023), and “The Polly King Project: ‘I Will Sing with Color.’” King was a 20th century artist who painted and sketched pictures of her adopted home of Niagara Falls, as well as other places she lived and visited, for nine decades until her death at the age of 93. Her work represented styles including classicism, impressionism, and abstract.
One of the more interesting facts Dr. Russell has uncovered in her research is that several items that survived a 1922 fire in the former Niagara Falls High School on Pine Avenue (now the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center), were placed inside the cornerstone of the school when it was rebuilt in 1923.
“I can’t help but wonder if the NACC, which is also home to Niagara Falls High School Alumni Center, knows about the treasures forever entombed inside the cornerstone!” she said.
“I’m not sure how many people truly know what a rich and vibrant history we have here in Niagara Falls,” she continued. “We are known for the legendary waterfalls, of course. Through my work with the NFNHA, I’m also helping to unearth our city’s incredible history of abolition, suffrage, civil rights, and feminism—and the people, the local history makers, behind those histories. It’s such important work.”