The much-anticipated Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center celebrated its grand opening on Friday.
The Heritage Center, developed in part by Niagara University, is an experiential museum that reveals authentic stories of Underground Railroad freedom seekers and abolitionists in Niagara Falls.
“It’s rare when you can walk into history and touch eternity in the same steps, and that’s really what we celebrate today,” said the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., president of Niagara University.
Bill Bradberry, president and chair, Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage commission, said, “As the first new cultural attraction in the City of Niagara Falls in over 35 years, opening the Underground Railroad Heritage Center is an incredibly significant event, both to the people of Niagara Falls and throughout the world.”
The Heritage Center is a project of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission, in cooperation with the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, a program of the National Park Service. It is located in the former 1863 U.S. Custom House, owned by the City of Niagara Falls, attached to the new Niagara Falls Amtrak Station.
“From the very beginning, the objective for the Heritage Center was to create an immersive experience that brings to life the stories of ordinary individuals who fought for freedom,” said Ally Spongr, director and curator, Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center.
Through painstaking research, the exhibition presents engaging digital media, graphics, scenic built environments and facilitated dialogic programming as part of the visitor experience. Scenic exhibit components include a recreation of the Cataract House - a premier international hotel that employed an entirely African American wait staff who helped uncounted numbers of freedom seekers to freedom in Canada - just across the Niagara River. Also included is a recreation of the International Suspension Bridge, built in 1848, and rebuilt in 1855 to incorporate rail traffic, where Harriet Tubman and other freedom seekers crossed the imaginary line from slavery to freedom. Stories are brought to life with powerful images by award-winning illustrator and fine artist E.B. Lewis and voice-overs by Emmy Award-winning actor Keith David.
“As a young girl, I was always fascinated by the history of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said. “Now as lieutenant governor, I have had the honor of visiting her home in Auburn and celebrating her life’s work and the work of abolitionists who brought slaves to freedom. The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center will showcase our state’s history as an integral part of the Underground Railroad, and tell the stories of the men and women who bravely dedicated their lives to securing liberty.”
“The Underground Railroad Heritage Center tells the stories of the freedom seekers from the moving perspective of those who lived it and from the unique Niagara Falls experience,” Congressman Brian Higgins said. “This project is designed to help visitors learn and grow as individuals, while at the same time growing opportunities for the region’s tourism industry.”
The Heritage Center’s permanent exhibition, “One More River to Cross,” will feature the rich stories of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls, the crucial role played by its location and geography, and the actions of its residents - particularly its African American residents. The Heritage Center’s immersive exhibits and cutting-edge interpretation affirmatively align with the principles of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, whose mission is to connect the past to modern social justice issues – “to turn memory to action.”
“The opening of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center makes sense for the city from an educational, cultural and economic standpoint,” New York State Sen. Rob Ortt said. “Not only will this museum add to our region’s list of historic tourist attractions but, when it opens its doors, it will share the vital importance Niagara Falls holds in the history of the Underground Railroad. For those who were escaping the horrors of slavery, Niagara Falls represented the end of one chapter in life and the beginning of another. I look forward to immersing myself in the stories of the Underground Railroad at Niagara Falls and learning of the individuals who made one last stop before freedom.”
Assemblyman Angelo Morinello added, “Congratulations to the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area for the completion of the Underground Heritage Center. Niagara Falls played an extremely important role assisting slaves on their journey to freedom. This center serves to remind the world of the inhumanity of slavery. Let this center serve to never forget the sadness and hardships endured by slaves through no fault of their own.”
The new Heritage Center focuses on stories of courageous self-emancipation by freedom seekers. Throughout the exhibition, visitors will experience these stories and hear from individuals past and present with the hope that these stories and connections will allow for deeper engagement, consideration of new or different perspectives, and motivation to action.
“For us, tourism must lead the way if we are to grow new forms of economic activity, which is why it is so gratifying to celebrate the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center’s opening, the first new cultural attraction in the City of Niagara Falls in over 30 years,” City of Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster said. “It is especially gratifying that this community project, begun with the simple concept of bringing local history, largely forgotten, to light. Starting with as many detractors as supporters, those that could not see this day then, can see today what a great achievement it is, a true set piece for the community. I believe that, like the North Star that guided freedom seekers northward, this small but important Heritage Center will undoubtedly lead the way for more place-based tourism and economic developments to follow.”
Sara Capen, executive director, Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, said, “The Niagara Falls National Heritage Area is proud to be a partner with the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area on this vital project. The impact of this project on our community and our region is truly immeasurable. Through the lens of history, the Heritage Center will share the important role individuals have in confronting injustice while serving as a catalyst for conversation about our nation’s most precious value: freedom.”
Destination Niagara USA President/CEO John Percy said, “As our destination continues to develop, we continue to recognize the need for year-round attractions that strengthen our ability to draw visitors to Niagara Falls, USA, throughout the year. Not only does the Underground Railroad Heritage Museum meet that need, it absolutely exceeds it by also honoring our area’s proud history in this important movement. We are thrilled that visitors and residents will have year-round access to this new attraction that not only educates, but does so in an innovative way.”
Father Maher, “All of us at Niagara University are proud to be part of such a historic day for Niagara Falls, Western New York and the United States. My predecessor, Father Joseph Levesque, C.M., initiated this collaborative project with the City of Niagara Falls in 2008 and our students, alumni, faculty, staff, administrators and partners - especially Dr. Thomas Chambers, Sara Capen, Ally Spongr and Christine Bacon - have been actively involved ever since. Consistent with our Catholic and Vincentian mission, we are steadfastly committed to advancing community engagement and economic development in Niagara Falls and beyond. This project, the first one dedicated to heritage tourism in Niagara Falls in over 35 years, is the latest example of this pledge.”
This project is led by the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission, chaired by Bill Bradberry, directed and curated by Spongr, and based on research by lead historian Dr. Judith Wellman. The Heritage Center's design-build teams include Studio Tectonic of Boulder, Colorado; Richard Lewis Media Group of Boston; and Universal Services Associates Inc. of Philadelphia.
For more information, visit www.niagarafallsundergroundrailroad.org.