Niagara Gazette

February 12, 2013

BRADBERRY: Underground Railroad sites dot city, region

By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — As some say, timing is everything, so when the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation established the Underground Railroad Heritage Area in the City of Niagara Falls last July 3 they officially blew the doors off the inertia that once held captive for far too long, one of the most powerful historical assets the city holds in its cash convertible tourism inventory.

Announcing the state’s unanimous approval of the Niagara Falls Underground Heritage Area Management Plan, Rose Harvey, Commissioner of state parks commended the Falls, the Heritage Area Commission, and the consultants who compiled the management plan for a job well done, noting that “Niagara Falls has a proud and well-recognized association with the history of the Underground Railroad, one of the greatest social justice movements in our nation's history.”

The plan, prepared on behalf of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission by a consultant team that included edr Companies, New York Historical Research Associates, Crawford & Stearns Architects and the Herzig Group was also approved by the city council and unanimously endorsed by the New York State Heritage Area Advisory Council.

It includes detailed recommendations for preserving and interpreting historic resources within the Heritage Area, as well as developing economic opportunities and promoting heritage tourism in Niagara Falls and the surrounding region.

Of particular and immediate interest because it identifies a number of buildings (and sites of former buildings) that are still standing today as testament to their significance is the “Survey of Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life in Niagara Falls and Surrounding Area, 1820-1880,” by Judith Wellman, Ph.D. The complete historic resources survey report is available at www.niagarafallsundergroundrailroad.org.

Excerpted entirely from Dr. Wellman’s Survey, here’s a quick peek at two of the buildings that are still occupied and standing proud in Niagara Falls and two sites within a few miles of the Falls in Lewiston and Youngstown, but there as the survey shows, is so much more …

First Congregational Church and Society of Niagara, 822 Cleveland Avenue

Like many Congregational churches, this one had many abolitionist members, including William H. Childs. It was located a block from the Suspension Bridge. The First Congregational Church and Society of Niagara City began to build their new church on land donated by James Vedder, with the cornerstone laid on September 10, 1855. Isaac Colt donated local limestone.

Reverend J.O. Knapp from Hatfield, Mass., became the first minister. In September 1856, they hung their new bell. On Oct. 29, 1857, the congregation dedicated the church, which has remained in continual use since that time.

The steeple clock became the community’s timekeeper, always running twenty minutes faster than clocks on the Canadian side of the river. From its very beginning, this Congregational Church found itself involved in debates over abolitionism, and several members withdrew in protest to the abolitionist sympathies of the majority.

Colt Block, northeast corner of Main and Ontario Streets

Leander Colt represents widespread local support for helping people to get out of slavery.

The only evidence of his involvement with the Underground Railroad was a diary note from Artemus Comstock on July 24, 1856. “He went to Lockport”, he wrote, “accompanied by Miss Eliza Netzel and Leander Colt and lady to listen to a concert given for the benefit of a colored man by the name of George Goines to redeem his mother and brother from slavery. The amount necessary to be raised was $1,000 and $1,100 was procured. The tickets sold for one dollar each. The concert was a good one.” After Colt constructed this block in 1855, he rented part of the building to George Hackstaff, editor of the Niagara Herald, who had antislavery sympathies. By 1860, Colt rented part of the second story to George Hackstaff, newspaper editor. Hackstaff edited The Iris, a newspaper with antislavery sympathies in Niagara Falls, from 1847-55.

Built of local limestone, the three-story Colt Block has anchored the north end of Main Street since its construction in 1855.

Lewiston Landing

Seven miles north of Niagara Falls, the village of Lewiston stands at the intersection of the Niagara Escarpment and the Niagara River.

Historically, this was the landing place that Seneca Indians guarded as the western door of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. A pre-Iroquoian ancient burial mound still stands near the carrying trail, now part of the Lewiston Artpark.

Many freedom seekers used the ferry at Lewiston or the Lewiston Suspension Bridge (from its construction in 1851 to its destruction in 1864) to cross into freedom in Ontario. Steamboats also stopped here six days a week, making a regular circuit of both U.S. and Canadian ports on Lake Ontario. U.S. captains such as Horatio Nelson Throop (master of the Rochester and the Ontario) and Canadian captains such as Hugh Richardson (master of the Chief Justice William Robinson) willingly picked up people escaping from slavery at the Lewiston landing and took them to Toronto and Kingston.

Today, the area near the historic landing and suspension bridge is marked by a bronze, larger than-life statue, designed by sculptor Susan Geissler and erected in 2009 to commemorate Margaret Goff Clark’s Freedom Crossing (1969).

Site of the Ferry Landing at Youngstown, Youngstown

Near the junction of Niagara River with Lake Ontario, the ferry across the Niagara River at Youngstown was an important crossing point for freedom seekers, particularly before completion of the Suspension Bridges at Niagara Falls in 1848 and Lewiston in 1851.

It remained an alternative even when these other crossing points were patrolled by slave catchers. There are several references to freedom seekers who escaped to Canada across the Youngstown Ferry. The earliest was Thomas James, who escaped from slavery near Canajoharie and Fort Plain, New York, in June 1821.

On Jan. 11, 1853, abolitionist orator, editor, and Minister Samuel Ringgold Ward, who had escaped from slavery with his parents when he was three years old, traveled across the river to Canada on the Youngstown ferry.

The NFUGRR Commission, working with its consultants is planning to develop a series of tours designed to complement other existing historic assets, enhance and enrich visitor as well as resident’s experiences while boosting economic development potential throughout the region.

It’s about time…

Contact Bill at bill.bradberry@yahoo.com