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Public input sought for Falls center; Underground Railroad site to be 'world-class'

The public will have a chance this week to provide input on the much-anticipated Underground Railroad Interpretive Center planned for the 1863 U.S. Customs House.

Public forums to discuss potential themes for the historical center will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday in Earl W. Brydges Public Library, 1425 Main St. Officials hope the center will highlight the region's connection to the Underground Railroad, in which slaves fled the South for freedom in Canada. Harriet Tubman is thought to have crossed into Canada over the Niagara River's former Suspension Bridge.

Renovation of the Customs House and the planning of the Underground Railroad center comprise the first phase of the three-step, $44 million project to turn the Customs House near the Whirlpool International Bridge into an international transportation hub.

"It's going to be a world-class, incredible interpretive center," said Kevin Cottrell, the city's project manager for the center. "The premise is heritage tourism, but at same time, the premise has always been, 'How do you lure the visitor into the city core?' "

Cottrell and Bill Bradberry, chairman of the 17-member Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission, hope the public session will stimulate community members with historical ties to come forward and share their stories and ideas.

Bradberry used the example of the Cataract Hotel in the Falls, which he said hosted 19th century plantation owners and their servants when the owners wanted to get a break from the Southern heat.

"There's not even a popsicle stick in the ground to identify or to mark this very important place," Bradberry said. "It's really very important that we discover that information, preserve that information and begin to interpret that information as it relates to our history."

Bradberry said the history includes people of all colors, citing the area's Quaker population as a group that lobbied leaders for an end to slavery.

"The area is just ripe with relevant history that led up to the development of the Civil War," Bradberry said. "I suspect that we will have people who originally may have fled the deep South and gone up into Canada, and they don't even know that they have this history."

Consulting firms have been hired to help research and compile the region's history as it relates to the Underground Railroad. That consultant will fact-check the research until it is "bulletproof," Bradberry said. A previous dispute arose after someone questioned whether Tubman actually crossed into Canada at the former Suspension Bridge at the city's edge.

The public meetings are part of the first phase of the Underground Railroad center. Development of a management plan and the design and creation of exhibits will follow the current step, Cottrell said.

Cottrell said he hopes visitors of the exhibit will be able to walk halfway across the Whirlpool Bridge and view the terrain Tubman saw on her journey to freedom.

"That is the one thing I know needs to happen," he said. "That's exciting."

Cottrell and Bradberry called the meetings a way for residents to become directly involved in the center's development.

"Whether they have questions and answers, we're interested to see the entire community take advantage of this unique opportunity to discuss our real history and share with the rest of the world," Bradberry said.