05 May 2018 | Staff | Niagara Gazette
It took years to build and bills itself as a place to find authentic stories of local freedom-seekers and abolitionists who had ties to the Underground Railroad.
And on Friday, supporters of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center celebrated its official grand opening while discussing its future as a new hub for educational and cultural experiences in the city’s North End.
“As the first new cultural attraction in the City of Niagara Falls in over 35 years, opening the Underground Railroad Heritage Center is an incredibly significant, both to the people of Niagara Falls, and throughout the world,” said Bill Bradberry, president and chair of the commission that oversaw the center’s development.
The heritage center is located inside the historic 1863 U.S. Customs House located at Depot Avenue and Whirlpool Street, next to the city’s new Amtrak train station. It features exhibitions highlighting local connections to the Underground Railroad, including a recreation of the Cataract House, a premier international hotel that employed an entirely African American wait staff who helped uncounted numbers of freedom-seekers find their way to Canada.
The center also offers a recreation of the International Suspension Bridge, built in 1848, and rebuilt in 1855 to incorporate rail traffic. The span is where Harriet Tubman and other freedom-seekers crossed the imaginary line from slavery to freedom.
Inside the center, visitors will find digital media, graphics, scenic-built environments and facilitated dialogic programming. Stories about the community’s connection to the Underground Railroad are brought to life with images from award-winning illustrator and artist E.B. Lewis, with voiceovers from Emmy Award winning actor Keith David.
The Heritage Center’s permanent exhibition, One More River to Cross, features stories about the Underground Railroad in Niagara falls, including the crucial role played by its location and geography and actions of the city’s residents, particularly its African American residents.
“From the very beginning, the objective for the heritage center was to create an immersive experience that brings to life the stories of ordinary individuals who fought for freedom,” said Ally Spongr, the center’s director and curator.
The project was funded with local and state dollars and encountered delays in original scheduling as the development of the exhibits took longer than originally planned. Some critics also questioned the validity of Tubman’s ties to the Underground Railroad in the Falls.
Supporters have consistently held that research shows Tubman played a role here, while noting that the center is also designed to offer more insight on lesser-known figures who were also instrumental in helping people escape slavery into Canada at the Falls.
Supporters believe the project will not only offer an educational experience, but also add to the appeal of the city as a destination for tourists.
“For us, tourism must lead the way if we are to grow new forms of economic activity, which is why it is so gratifying to celebrate the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center’s opening, the first new cultural attraction in the City of Niagara Falls in over 30 years,” said Mayor Paul Dyster. “It is especially gratifying that this community project, begun with the simple concept – of bringing local history, largely forgotten, to light. Starting with as many detractors as supporters, those that could not see this day then, can see today what a great achievement it is, a true set piece for the community. I believe that like the North Star that guided freedom-seekers northward, this small but important Heritage Center will undoubtedly lead the way for more place-based tourism and economic developments to follow.”
An opening gala is scheduled for 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday in the event room at the train station. A Community Day with special performances by the Colored Musicians Club, George Scott Big Band and self-guided tours will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Exhibition tickets must be reserved in advance.
For more information, visit the heritage center’s website at www.niagarafallsundergroundrailroad.org.
Original Link | Underground Railroad museum opens in Niagara Falls, NY
Read This Day from Hawkins Bay Dispatch