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Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center opens for visitors

A museum commemorating some of the local people and places that helped escaped African-American slaves find freedom in Canada formally opened its doors Friday. Those attending the grand opening of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center say the new cultural asset will educate people of the region's past while helping guests recognize the modern social injustices that stem from the nation's history of slavery.

The center, located in the former 1863 U.S. Customs House, features multimedia exhibits and mock-ups portraying the people, some famous but others lesser known, who risked their own safety to help countless African-Americans cross the Niagara River into Canada, and freedom.

Even in a "free state" such as New York, escaped slaves were not necessarily free. Bill Bradberry, president of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission, said even here there were threats to the safety of escapees.

"From the 1830, according to great historians and authors such as Fergus Bordewich and based on the research by Dr. Judith Wellman and Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost, we know that there were several people who hung around at the crossing points, whose sole industry was to snatch people and try to drag them back into slavery," said Bradberry.

One of the venues celebrated in the Heritage Center is the former Cataract House, an international hotel located just outside the state park built in 1825. It employed a wait staff made up entirely of African-Americans, led by head waiter John Morrison. In plain sight, they served guests from near and far, including many southerners who had traveled to see the region's natural wonder. In secret, they helped many peers slip into Canada. 

The Cataract House burned down in 1945 but the Heritage Center features a room that provides stories of the staff, their military-like discipline and the courage needed to help escapees complete their journey into Canada.

"I used to sit in the gazebo at the state park and watch thousands of people, walking on what I consider sacred land, that had no idea what happened there," said Bradberry. "Not even a popsicle stick in the ground to mark it. Nothing. But that was the nexus of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls, much more important that Harriet Tubman passing through or Frederick Douglass coming here to stop right down the street to talk at the Congregationalist Church, which by the way split up as the result of his attending."

Members of the Underground Railroad Heritage Commission say the center will provide an education that visitors will not get elsewhere, being so close to where it actually happened.

"Only here will you be able to see, hear and feel the acts of love and bravery of the people of the famous and fabulous Cataract Hotel," said Commission vice-chair Denise Easterling, who has led her own tours of local Underground Railroad sites. "Only here can you find out about how those people took care of the rich but also took care of the poor in that building."

Having a unique destination attraction such as the Heritage Center, others said, is important to a region like Niagara Falls, which depends heavily on the tourism market.

"Cultural tourism is the fastest-growing area of the tourism economy," said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, one of numerous elected officials present for the grand opening. "This is bread and butter for the State of New York. We have over 236 million people come to our state every year. It's a $1.104 billion industry." 

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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