Digging into the history of the Cataract House in downtown Niagara Falls has stretches of tedium and difficulty, punctuated by fascinating and exciting discoveries.
And there are days when it seems like the whole world is watching as workers from the Archaeological Survey of the University at Buffalo brush loose soil into cups, scrape crusted dirt away from the edges of stones with trowels and sift the removed material through framework sieves, preserving man-made items.
The guest book at the dig, which started Sept. 15, is filled with signatures of visitors from France, Australia and far-flung parts of the United States, as well as plenty of local spectators. On a recent Friday, a family from Mexico, several groups from Canada and a couple from Japan walked up to the site of two rectangular 6-foot-by-3-foot trenches in Heritage Park, under the eye of the long-vacant Native American Center for the Living Arts building.
"This is a public archaeological dig, so the purpose is not to move dirt quickly, but to educate the public on the importance of this building to Niagara Falls, and also to show what archaeologists do," said Kate Whalen, Archaeological Survey project director at the site and a recent UB PhD graduate.
The significance of the Cataract House, which was all but forgotten as Niagara Falls demolished downtown buildings in a misguided attempt at urban renewal, is immense.
It was opened in 1825 by Parkhurst Whitney and later operated by his descendants. In the 1840s and 1850s, its corps of African-American waiters, many of whom apparently were born in slavery themselves, worked to liberate enslaved people who had been brought to the Cataract House. Through secrecy, skill and even force in some well-documented cases, the waiters helped people flee across the Niagara River to freedom in Canada.
In 1945, the Cataract House was destroyed by a smoky, slow-moving fire. The charred ruins of the building were bulldozed into the basement and covered with dirt, and eventually, the grass, pathways and gardens of Heritage Park covered the site.
On Sept. 15, workers from the Archaeological Survey stripped off the turf and began to excavate two rectangular trenches, one parallel and the other perpendicular to Old Main Street. Under a layer of fill dirt, they began to find bits and pieces, then features, the archaeological name for non-portable man-made objects, such as walls.
Maps and old photos indicate that the trenches have been dug where the kitchens were, where the waiters practiced their meticulous meal service and also worked as a team to help enslaved people flee to freedom.
The two trenches, which are now about 2 feet deep, are only about 8 feet apart, but they are are very different.
In the first trench, which runs parallel to Main Street, the crew found a stone wall, dubbed "Feature 1."
In every dig, first impressions may change as more is excavated, said Whalen. First, the workers wondered whether they had found the irregularly shaped stones of a flagstone floor. Further digging revealed supporting layers of stones underneath and they realized they had found a wall.
"They are cut stones but not uniform," said Whalen. "They are small stones, too flimsy to be a foundation. Our current interpretation is that it's an interior wall, because we found that it had a plaster face."
A heavy rectangular cut stone was found in that trench covered with a layer of asphalt, leading the crew to believe that it might have been part of a stone curb at the edge of the hotel property. "It was found in the fill layer," said Whalen. "We're not sure if they had to bring in other stuff to fill the basement, though."
In the second trench, the workers uncovered bricks. The first few were at slight angles to each other, and the crew stopped to discuss what that might mean. Had they found a round brick well or cistern, or an oven? But further excavations revealed that the lower courses of bricks are straight, not curved.
"Now we think that those upper bricks might have been knocked off course by the rubble that was pushed in," said Whalen.
Subtle differences in the color of the soil are noted. In the second trench, the soil has a white hue. "That's plaster," said Whalen. Layers of plaster have been found still clinging to both the brick wall and the stone wall, indicating that they were probably interior walls.
Digging in the first trench is challenging because the middle is filled with a large mass of rubble. Stones in this pile, merged by time and pressure into an almost solid mass, will be pried apart.
Almost as important as what the crew is finding is what they aren't finding, said Whalen. "They aren't finding a lot of glass, they aren't finding a lot of nails," she said. "We know from photos and maps that the first floor would have been on this surface where we are standing. So where are the floorboards? We should be seeing nails."
Plenty of small artifacts are being uncovered, and many of them have been cleaned, documented and placed in clear plastic boxes at UB. While the crew is working on Fridays and Saturdays, a table is set up for the boxes, each containing an item found at the site. They include a piece of a Coca-Cola bottle the crew has been able to date to 1937, fragments of metal, plaster, window glass and china, a hand-forged nail and bits of a green wine bottle.
Among the boxed artifacts is a funny one, a small red Tyrannosaurus rex toy, which drew a lot of excited comments when it emerged from the soil. The crew dubbed it the Daphne dinosaur after Daphne Limner, a UB undergraduate who unearthed the figure. Others working on the dig are undergraduate student Leah Glenn, UB graduates Heather Lackos and Olivia Calos, and UB Ph.D. students Hannah Quaintance and Joe Prego. The work is supervised by Douglas J. Perrelli, director of the nonprofit Archaeological Survey and a clinical assistant professor of anthropology at UB.
A scrap of wood – a thin segment about 6 inches long, broken into two parts – was among the recent finds. Layers of what could be paint cling to the wood; a green color could be paint or the remnants of corrosion.
A bit of window glass was found, embossed with the vintage starburst design that was used to provide privacy in bathroom windows.
Although they are seeking history from more than 150 years ago, finding recent items in the soil is useful, too, said Whalen. "Finding artifacts in this dirt helps us to understand what happened to this landscape in the interim," between the fire and the present, she said.
What hasn't been found – if you eliminate the dinosaur – are personal items, said Whalen. "Everything we've found so far has been architectural," she said, parts of the buildings.
"I think this is just fantastic," said Chuck Curran, a member of the board of the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society who participated in archaeological digs when he was a student at American University in Rome. Curran, along with Bill Bradberry, chairman and president of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission, and Dan Davis, an author whom Bradberry refers to as "The Mayor of Suspension Bridge Village," frequently visit the site.
"We have a few regular visitors," said Whalen. "We're hoping to get some more as word spreads about this project. We get all different perspectives from visitors, from community members, local historians, archaeologists and the descendant communities."
It was the first time Ellen Wolf-Muhleck, now of Tarpon Springs, Fla., had seen such a project in the city where she grew up. "This is a very cool thing, but then Niagara Falls is a cool place," she said. "There's a lot of symbolism in this effort, and it's long overdue. This whole area, including Rochester and along the Erie Canal, was very important to the abolitionist movement, and to the women's rights movement, too."
Signs on the fence surrounding the dig share the history of the Cataract House and its intrepid waiters. The crew will continue its excavation on Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 28, then the project will end for the winter. Whalen said the future of the site "depends on what we find and what the next step is in the project."
Steve Jackson, of Adelaide, Australia, who was staying at the Red Coach Inn, happened upon the dig and was impressed by the significant history of what has for decades been just part of a lawn near a path in a small downtown park.
"Considering that it was burned, bulldozed and buried, and a park put on top of it, you wouldn't have a clue that there was anything here," he said.