Weekly Feature



2018-03-14 / Lifestyles

Underground Railroad Heritage Center

Opening in May... to share lost history
ALAN RIZZO
Reporter


Scheduled to open May 4, the new Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center will occupy the former 1863 U.S. Custom House, pictured here, that is attached to the new Amtrak station at 825 Depot Ave. W. 
Photos courtesy of Ally Spongr Scheduled to open May 4, the new Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center will occupy the former 1863 U.S. Custom House, pictured here, that is attached to the new Amtrak station at 825 Depot Ave. W. Photos courtesy of Ally Spongr On May 4, Niagara Falls will officially become home to a new Underground Railroad Heritage Center, a facility that will tell stories of freedom seekers and abolitionists that have “been unknown for a very long time,” according to Ally Spongr, the center’s director and curator.

Inhabiting the the former 1863 U.S. Custom House attached to the city’s new Amtrak station, the center will feature immersive exhibits that are the product of painstaking research by historians that are intended to get visitors to see how modern injustices stem from slavery and “turn memory to action.”

“Our goal is to help visitors recognize that some modern injustices have direct roots in slavery, while other contemporary struggles parallel those of nineteenth century freedom seekers,” Spongr wrote in an email response to The Bee. “We aim to inspire visitors to take positive steps to help create positive change in Niagara Falls and their local communities.”


A re-creation of The Cataract House hotel, demolished after a fire in 1945, will be part of the new Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, which is scheduled to open on May 4. A re-creation of The Cataract House hotel, demolished after a fire in 1945, will be part of the new Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, which is scheduled to open on May 4. Spongr said one of the stories the center will tell is that of 28-year-old Josiah “Joe” Bailey, who traveled from Maryland toward freedom in 1856, along with his brother, William, and a few others. Guided by Harriet Tubman, Bailey fell into depression when, still more than 300 miles from Canada, he heard that his escape was being advertised as far away as New York City.

“Even when they reached the [International Suspension Bridge], Joe refused to take heart,” Spongr noted. “Once their train reached Canada, Harriet shouted to Joe that he was free. Joe finally responded and raised his hands to heaven, and with tears streaming down his face, he started to sing.”

Bailey’s story, along with many others, will be part of “One More River to Cross,” a permanent exhibition that will recount the experiences of freedom seekers in Niagara Falls, as well as the geographical importance of the city and the courageous acts of its residents.

Storytelling will be enhanced by engaging digital media, graphics and other programming, as well as animated watercolors from award-winning illustrator E.B. Lewis and voice-over work by Emmy Award-winning actor Keith David.

The exhibition will also recreate local buildings and sites important to the Underground Railroad that have been lost to fire and decay, such as The Cataract House hotel, which employed an African-American wait staff that helped countless freedom seekers get to Canada, and the International Suspension Bridge, a major crossing point for hundreds if not thousands of slaves, of which only remnants remain.

“One of our major challenges has been to figure out how to reunite ourselves with these sites and re-establish a sense of place,” Spongr wrote. “By fabricating a section of the [Suspension Bridge] and a section of The Cataract House facade, based on extensive historical research, we are able to immerse visitors in the historical surroundings to more effectively connect them with the stories of the Underground Railroad that happened right here.”

The public is invited to attend a series of special events scheduled for the center’s grand opening weekend, which will take place from May 4 through 6, at 825 Depot Ave. W. in Niagara Falls.

More information on the weekend’s events will be released shortly on the center’s website at http://niagarafallsundergroundrailroad.org/.

Admission hours for the center will begin on May 4, and run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as well as from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.

Admission to the center will be $10 for adults, $8 for students 13 and older and college students with ID, and $6 for children ages 6 through 12. Children ages 5 and younger will be admitted free. Group rates and neighborhood membership cards for local residents will be available.

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