The Underground Railroad's quiet connection to Western New York is going public with help from the state and county, another example of the growing movement to convert the area's rich history into tourism dollars.
Gov. George E. Pataki today announced the state will spend $1 million to help protect and preserve historic sites across the state that are associated with the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement.
"It is fitting that we make this announcement in Buffalo, a crucial gateway for slaves seeking freedom," the governor said in a prepared statement. "It was here in Buffalo, at Broderick Park, that escaping slaves boarded the ferries that carried them to freedom in Canada."
The Niagara Frontier was one of the major routes for runaway slaves fleeing the South before the Civil War. Slaves harbored by a secret network of free blacks and sympathetic whites made their way to Niagara and Erie counties before crossing the Niagara River to liberty.
The new push to promote the Underground Railroad for heritage tourism comes only a few months after the state decided to heed local demands and emphasize Erie Canal history in the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor.
Together, they represent a concerted effort to develop more attractions that use the area's grand past to build on its biggest tourist attraction, Niagara Falls, and give visitors more reasons to stay and spend money.
"All of these are niche markets," said Richard Geiger, president of the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Putting them all together gives us more product. It won't be just the Erie Canal or Darwin Martin House, but when you put all this together, then you have something to take to market on top of the big draw of Niagara Falls."
County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who is scheduled to discuss the initiative with Pataki, said a major effort is being launched to publicize and market the local remnants of the vast network that aided runaway slaves on their flight to freedom more than 150 years ago.
"Until recently, the landmarks and stories of the Underground Railroad have been neglected," Giambra said.
For Kevin Cottrell, an African-American entrepreneur whose company, Motherland Connextions, has been offering Underground Railroad tours for 10 years, the decision to capitalize on its history is long overdue.
"The days of putting a plaque on a wall and being happy are over," he said. "If we don't take advantage of the economic development this offers, the community doesn't get those dollars."
Cottrell and others believe that, properly nurtured, the heritage tourism generated by such important Underground Railroad sites as the Michigan Street Baptist Church in Buffalo will yield significant economic benefits, particularly in poor areas.
Efforts now under way to identify and promote key sites in the region associated with the Underground Railroad include:
Pataki's decision to invest $1 million in Underground Railroad heritage tourism by helping preserve and promote sites. Giambra also said it will be an important priority for Erie County.
Interest by the National Park Service in Murphy Orchards, an Underground Railroad site in Niagara County. The Park Service may include it in the new National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, the only state site currently under consideration.
Establishment of the Buffalo Niagara Freedom Station Coalition to restore Michigan Street Baptist Church. Built in 1845, it was the first African-American church in Buffalo. Major figures of the anti-slavery movement spoke there, and it was an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
Like many of the important Underground Railroad sites, the Michigan Street church is in dire need of repairs and, if not attended to soon, may lose its value to heritage tourism. Bishop William Henderson, minister of the church, estimated it will cost $2.5 million to restore the building.
Cottrell said the state could play a major role in preserving the infrastructure of old churches, homes and farms that made up the Underground Railroad.
"If they don't preserve them, they'll fall apart," he said.
Interest in the Underground Railroad is proving to be a growing draw in other states where the clandestine system ran, such as Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
"There's been an awakening, a renaissance of interest in the Underground Railroad," said Cathy Nelson, founder and state coordinator of the Friends of Freedom Sociey in Columbus, Ohio.
"It's a humanitarian effort, a story of compassion, a time of people helping people. There are not that many times in America when people set aside race and social status to help a higher cause. They're stories that happened in your own back yard."
Pat Jaynes, a spokeswoman for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, said her community also is seeking to promote its association with the Underground Railroad. Like Buffalo, slaves passed through Detroit en route to Canada.
Upstate New York was a hotbed of the anti-slavery movement. Frederick Douglass established the North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper, in Rochester in 1847. Harriet Tubman, described as the "Black Moses" for leading slaves out of the South, is buried in Auburn.
After slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, many fugitives found their way here and settled, some forming communities in the Southern Tier. They and other free blacks lived relatively at peace until the Fugitive Slave Act was approved by Congress in 1850.
The law made it a criminal offense to harbor escaped slaves regardless of whether they had fled to free states. Bounty hunters began infiltrating New York, and federal marshals were required to arrest and send back any escaped slaves they apprehended.
The importance of the Underground Railroad was amplified by the new law, which was hated by opponents of slavery. In Syracuse, a crowd of abolitionists stormed the city jail in 1851 to free a black man who had been arrested, an incident called the "Jerry Rescue."
Because they could no longer find a safe home in New York, crossings to Canada increased. Tubman helped many groups of slaves escape across a suspension bridge at Niagara Falls that is now the site of the Whirlpool Bridge. She lived in St. Catharines, Ont., from 1851 to 1857.
Many escaped slaves also found refuge with sympathetic Quakers and other local residents. The McClew family bought a farm in Niagara County -- now called Murphy Orchards -- in 1850, and harbored slaves fleeing along the Erie Canal or Hopkins Creek on their way to Canada.
Runaway slaves who reached Rochester were urged by Douglass to go to the black church in Buffalo -- Michigan Street Baptist Church -- to find safety before trying to make the crossing to Fort Erie, Ont., Henderson said.
In later years, the church was a center for the early civil rights movement. Mary Talbert, a church secretary, was a founder of the Niagara Movement, the precursor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, along with W.E.B. DuBois.
Cottrell said what owners of important sites such as Michigan Street Baptist Church most need is assistance from the state and local tourism officials on how to develop and promote their sites.
He said his tour company brought 25 buses to Western New York Underground Railroad sites last year, almost 700 people.
"If the state does it right, if it teaches them how to do this, then tourism can be the fuel to restore the sites and keep them going," he said.