BRADBERRY: Niagara’s rich history, right under our noses, feet

Bill Bradberry

As I’ve said before, and I say again because it bears repeating, talk to almost any senior Niagara Falls, New York resident with a good memory, or any expatriate, anyone who has moved away but who still harbors grand memories of their beloved, albeit forsaken hometown, inevitably the subject of fine cuisine and the city’s grand old days inevitably arise.

Niagarans of every nationality whether they hailed from Europe, New England or the Deep South, have fond memories of the good food and great places that Niagara Falls was once famous for, beside the Cataracts.

If some folk have their way, those memories will be forever famous, perhaps more so now than ever before. That’s not to suggest that we live in the past, but it definitely demands that we not forget it either.

Turns out, folks love to tell stories about their, or their grandmother’s secret recipes, the neighborhood aromas, the restaurants, the vegetable and spice gardens, the old City Market, the delicious fresh fish caught right out of the Niagara River or either of the Great Lakes and local streams here could fill a library.

Niagara Falls City Historian and prolific writer, Michelle Kratts is busy putting the final touches on Volume Two, a follow-up to her book, The Italians of Niagara Falls, Volume One.

Kratts’ book, co-authored by Eleanor Novara, Marcia Buzzelli, Dan Sicoli, Patricia DiNieri and Robert Borgatti is, “…a concise history of the Italians of Niagara Falls, New York, from the earliest immigrants to the present time. Filled with family stories, photographs, news clippings, poetry and recipes, it is the perfect companion to the very popular first book of Niagara’s Italian-American history, Buon Appetito, Niagara’s early Italian American traditions” according to the publisher.

At the launch of Volume One last July at the Lewiston Public Library, Kratts and others noted that food seems to be the ingredient that brought people together in the early days of Niagara, and that it has the same effect today.

Volume Two, she says should be ready before Thanksgiving, just in time for the holiday gift exchanges. Food also appears to be the linchpin of the long lost stories of the waiters and cook staff at the historic Cataract House here, many if not most of whom, were refuges from slave states who found work at the hotel, courtesy of the owners who knew full well that what they were doing was in open defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act signed into law by President Fillmore in 1850.

Some may recall the story of William Bell Fossett whose mother was moved into the White House by then President Thomas Jefferson in order to learn French cooking.

History suggests that Fossett eventually found his way to the Cataract House where he likely served as a waiter. We have established that Fossett was in Niagara Falls as early as 1854 where, as Kratts notes, he had been “given charge of a hotel at Niagara Falls” most likely the Cataract House. Both the Cataract House and the International Hotel are known to have employed hundreds of refugees from Southern slavery.

Of course, Niagara’s culinary history goes all the way back to the pre-Colonial period; long before Europeans stumbled across Niagara Falls, Natives had already mastered their own crops and developed their very own cuisine, some of which, like many others from around the world, especially India and the American Deep South are available in Niagara Falls today.

No doubt, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, even the World Wars and other military conflicts also introduced new foods and flavors to the palates of the masses, many of whom still remember and crave their unique tastes; fortunately, skilled chefs can replicate some of those experiences, keeping that part of our heritage alive.

All of this brings me to believe that some of the most important history of Niagara Falls, and quite possibly an integral part of our future as a tourist destination instead of a three hour long attraction may lie just below the surface, right under our feet.

As the significance of the Cataract House slowly emerges as a major part of our lost history, it seems to some that it is worth the effort to find out what may lie beneath the site of that grand old lady.

Apparently, when the hotel “burned to the ground” in 1945 the charred debris and rubble were simply pushed into the basement hole, then covered up. Archeology experts like State University at Buffalo’s School of Anthropology’s Doug Perrelli, from the Archeological Survey, a qualified research, contracting and applied archeology institution within the Department of Anthropology, and historian, archeologist and professor, Karolyn Smardz Frost.

Frost is the Canadian historian who won the Governor General’s Award for English-language nonfiction in 2007 for her book, “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad.” She agrees with Perelli; it’s worth the effort to try to find out whether any artifacts might be recoverable from the site.

All agree, the first step in a long and careful process, is to determine exactly where the Cataract House was situated. Most local historians, and many folks who were around to watch the building burn down, can point to the general location, diagonally across the present day Red Coach Inn, originally built after another hotel was demolished to make way for their opening on Aug. 30, 1923.

Sadly, the very popular International Hotel, built in 1853 by B.F. Childs at the corner of Falls Avenue and Main Street was destroyed by fire on Jan. 3, 1918. President William McKinley is said to have had lunch there (some say he dined at the Cataract House) a few hours before he was assassinated in Buffalo on Sept. 14, 1901. Like Bill Feder’s epic “The Evolution of An Ethnic Neighborhood That Became United In Diversity: The Eastside, Niagara Falls, New York 1880-1930”:, and Michael Boston’s “Blacks in Niagara Falls, New York: 1865-1965,” the Kratts’ stories about the Italians of Niagara Falls and every other culture that settled here need to be known and shared.

Like the Old Stone Chimney, saved by beloved local historian Paul Gromosiak; the Tesla memorabilia, now the focus of local history enthusiasts, Tesla at Niagara, anything we can recover from the hotels, especially the Cataract House will be a worthy addition to the inventory of assets we need to preserve, not only for history’s sake and for future tourism related attractions, we need to do this for ourselves.

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