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.
In fact, more than two dozen UGRR sites within and around the City of Niagara Falls have been identified and documented so far via Dr. Wellman’s exhaustive research (“Survey of Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life in Niagara Falls and Surrounding Area, 1820-1880”).
In addition, local historian Michelle Kratts who serves on the Oakwood Cemetery Board of Directors has been able to identify some of the burial sites at Oakwood of some of the waiters who worked at the Cataract.
It is well established that for many years after Emancipation and the Civil War, the local hospitality industry employed hundreds of African Americans as cooks, waiters, chambermaids, dishwashers, porters, drivers and almost everything else that supported the business of tourism and at the same time pursued the expansion of freedom and human rights in a way that few can even imagine today.
In addition to the Cataract House, the Eagle Hotel, the International, the Free Soil Hotel, the Patterson House and the Robinson House Hotel all played a role in the business and to some extent, the UGRR.
One of the best known stories about the relationships between and among the hotels and the UGRR characters is that of a certain “citizen of Savannah, Georgia” who in 1853 in what became a nationally publicized incident, claimed to recognize one of the Cataract House waiters, Patrick Sneed, “red-haired and freckled, a cooper by training, with a mixture of African American, Jewish, and Native American ancestry.”
As Wellman reports, he had escaped from slavery in 1849, most likely from Washington, D.C. Sneed had been working at the Cataract Hotel as a waiter, using the name Joseph Watson until one Sunday afternoon, Aug. 27, 1853, about 4 p.m., two police officers — J.K. Tyler and Boyington — arrived with a warrant for Sneed’s arrest. He was not charged with escaping from slavery but with the murder in July 1849 of James W. Jones in Savannah.
As Sneed recalled “when the officers arrived at the Cataract House, its proprietors Solon Whitney, Dexter Jerauld, and James F. Trott asserted that they had no wish to obstruct justice, but they declined to help the marshals arrest him, according to the Buffalo Daily Courier, Aug. 30, 1853.
The officers then resorted to a ruse, the story goes: they called Sneed out of the dining room, using the pretext that they wished to tip him for service at dinner. Immediately, Boyington clapped handcuffs on one of Sneed’s wrists, but Sneed “shouted lustily for assistance,” and estimates of 60 to 100 waiters poured out of the dining room to help him.
They dragged Sneed back into the dining hall, tore him from the hands of the officers in the process ripping nearly every vestige of his clothing” from him, shut and barred the doors at the end of the hall, and stood guard, preventing the officers from following.
As Sneed explained, the colored waiters “dragged me ... down to the ferry way. I got into the cars (the inclined railway had been built in 1845), and the waiters were lowering me down, when the constables came and stopped them, saying, "Stop that murderer!"— they called me a murderer!
“Then I was dragged down the steps by the waiters, and flung into the ferry boat.”
He made it within 50 feet of the Canadian shore before the ferryman discovered that he was carrying an accused murderer. Instead of taking Sneed to Canada, he brought him to the American shore.
“They could not land me at the usual place because of the waiters,” Sneed recounted, so they took him to the Maid of the Mist landing, just south of the Suspension Bridge.
Even at the time of Sneed’s arrest, many people considered the charges to be fraudulent, an attempt to get him back into slavery rather than an honest accusation. Nevertheless, Sneed was committed to jail, but more details about Sneed’s background came out in testimony at the hearing. “We are very confident,” reported Samuel B. Sherwood, a Newark banker, “that the charge was only a pretext to get them back into slavery.” J.M. Byers wrote, “There is no doubt at all of the innocence of Sneed of the charge of murder. He is the slave of David R. Dillon, who takes that means to get him back.”
Wellman notes, Sneed’s counsel, Eli Cook, took two hours to sum up his argument, in a “most thorough, fair, and beautiful manner,” reported the Albany Evening Journal, and “the intentions in regard to Sneed are as clear as the dawn.” Judge Sheldon thought so, too. On day eleven, court opened at 9 a.m. and the judge released Sneed by 10 a.m. Sneed immediately left for Canada.
Several of the leading characters in Niagara’s heritage are well know names, some known only as street names by most here today ... Pierce, Whitney, Jerauld until now, not generally associated with our UGRR history, but, as Wellman demonstrates, by the 1880s, the Cataract House was a national institution.
Only the International Hotel, built in 1853, challenged the Cataract in size and quality. Says Wellman, “By hiring African American waiters, porters, and cooks — many of them born in slavery — the Whitney family also created a major node of Underground Railroad activism.”
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