Niagara Gazette

Columns

February 5, 2013

BRADBERRY: A better glimpse into Cataract House's past

Niagara Gazette — Thanks to the work of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission, the complicated, once hidden roles of the many men and women who worked together to run the Cataract House and other hotels here during slavery is becoming increasingly clear.

There is little legitimate doubt that with the help and support of many of Niagara’s anti-slavery activists and de-facto abolitionists, some of the African American waiters who were employed by the Cataract House, many of them arriving here to relative freedom from the slave holding Southern states led, aided or abetted the escape of countless other formerly enslaved people into freedom, many to Canada.

Built in 1825 on the swirling banks of the mighty Niagara River, partially situated on what we now fittingly call the Heritage Park, the Cataract House with its wide shaded porches, and lazy rocking chairs perfectly perched to catch the fresh cooling mist, comforting the summer season Plantation guests and other visitors arriving from around the world, the “finest hotel in the East” once sprawled across the street to what are now the Red Coach Inn and the Turtle building in the heart of Niagara Falls’ tourist district.

The three-story stone building was purchased in 1831 by Parkhurst Whitney to accommodate the overflow guests from his Eagle Hotel, located just north of the Cataract on Falls Street. Whitney sold the Eagle to Benjamin Rathbun and built a stone four-story addition to the Cataract in 1835.

As the tourism business grew, so did the Cataract, and in 1842-43 he built another stone addition, always looking ahead, he purchased additional lots on the river, eventually connecting buildings at the river’s edge to form the grand hotel.

Thanks to the amazing work of Dr. Judith Wellman, PhD of Historical New York Research Associates, Inc. and the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission, the roll of the waiters as participants in America’s vast Underground Railroad (UGRR) network is literally and virtually being uncovered after nearly 200 years of hiding in plain sight.

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