An historic marker was debuted outside of the Niagara Falls Custom House during a brief ceremony on Saturday.
The custom house was restored by the city in 2011and later integrated into the Niagara Falls International Railway Station in 2016. The initiative to save and restore this building was taken when it was listed on New York State’s “Seven-to Save” list that outlines the state’s most endangered historic structures.
“The United States Custom House at Niagara Falls played a prominent role in the exchange of goods across the international border with Canada for nearly 100 years as the primary customs location in the Niagara region,” Mayor, Robert Restaino said during the ceremony. “The current integration of the Niagara Falls Custom House with the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center is a further expression of the importance of this location in history. This historic marker will make public the incredible impact of this building and location have had in the advancement of commerce and, most especially, in the fight for freedom.”
The Niagara Frontier Chapter of the National Railways Historical Society played a role in establishing the marker.
“(We have) a proud tradition of historic preservation and interpretation dating back nearly 80 years,” said Jim Ball, president of the Niagara Frontier Chapter of the National Railways Historical Society. “Our activities include public programs, historic research, publications, rail excursions, an extensive library and archives, a museum, and our newsletter.”
The marker is further testament to the history that occurred in Niagara Falls, said Sara Capen, executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area.
“It was at this location that dozens of people who escaped slavery in the American south crossed into freedom, many under the steadfast and unwavering guidance of Harriet Tubman," she said.
Added, Ally Spngr, interim director of the Niagara Falls Heritage Area, "At the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, we recognize the significance of a place when sharing history with the public. Our visitors have the opportunity to stand inside and outside of the U.S. Custom House, where the Heritage Center is located, to see, and feel, where countless freedom seekers took their last steps before crossing the Suspension Bridge to freedom in Canada."
In addition to the building’s history as the last stop on a long journey to freedom, Anton Schwarzmueller, project coordinator for the Niagara Frontier Chapter of the National Railways Historical Society, provided another take on the historical significance of the building. “Why does this building matter? What was happening in our country in 1863 when this custom house was constructed? Abraham Lincoln was president. The Civil War was raging. It was the year the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. Why did the government invest time and money on this building at that time? Because wars are expensive. A crucial source of revenue for the government was from the collection of duty. The tariff had been a divisive issue at the cusp of the succession; the northern states wanted a higher tariff to better protect their industries. The tariff was raised higher as the war began. This Custom House represents the resolve of the Union to enforce the tariff, collect revenue, and fund the war.”
Schwarzmueller explained how he worked closely with Niagara Falls and the William G. Pomeroy Foundation to secure a grant to provide the historic marker for the custom house building. The Pomeroy Foundation is a private grant-making foundation that was established in 2005. The foundation is committed to supporting the celebration and preservation of community history.
“The United States Custom House has stood as part of the rich history of the City of Niagara Falls for more than 150 years,” said Paula Miller, executive director of the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. “The Pomeroy Foundation is delighted to have awarded a grant to help commemorate the building’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places with this new roadside marker. We congratulate the Niagara Frontier Chapter NRHS, Inc. and the Niagara Falls community for their efforts to recognize and preserve this historic property.”