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New life for 1863 Customs House; Restored Civil War-era building to open as an educational treasure for the region

For years, it sat dirty, dank and unused -- a building carved from Lewiston limestone that was historic yet crumbling.

But this week, the former 1863 U.S. Customs House on Whirlpool Street will be opened to public view, restored as one-half of a $44 million project and touted as a key to highlighting the region's role in the Underground Railroad.

"To see it materialize is incredible," said Kevin Cottrell, director of the Underground Railroad North Star Initiative. "This is not just an interpretive center, but a heritage tourism project. I don't think there are any initiatives like that in the city, maybe outside of the culinary institute."

The completed interior and exterior renovation of the Customs House will be open for public viewing from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Monday. The Underground Railroad Interpretive Center will be located on the first floor, and a U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection station will take up the second floor.

The renovation marks the completion of the first phase of the $44 million International Railway Station and Intermodal Transportation Center, which will also include a yet-to-be-built Amtrak train station officials hope will serve as a hub for high-speed rail from New York to Toronto.

"It's a very significant fact that we've reached one of the major milestones in the project," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "It pulls together several different strands of strategy for the city's revitalization."

While groundbreaking for the Amtrak station is scheduled in August, Cottrell and the Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission will soon begin designing exhibits for the Customs House, which will open in late 2013 or 2014.

The City Council last week approved a management plan for the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area, which was designated in 2008 as one of 20 heritage areas throughout the state.

The interpretive center won't be so much a museum as the centerpiece of a larger Underground Railroad heritage trail that will include walking tours and other historic sites throughout the county, Cottrell said.

"When you step outside, the story doesn't stop," Cottrell said. "You're looking at Canada or Canaan land. You are looking at the Niagara River [and] walking out to the center of the [Whirlpool International] Bridge and looking at the sights and sounds that [Harriet Tubman] looked over."

He added, "Not only does it serve as a visitor center for the heritage area management plan, but it is a small jewel in the crown of what Niagara Falls is trying to do in terms of tourism."

Many are aware that Tubman is said to have crossed into freedom at what is now the Whirlpool Bridge, but Cottrell said researchers and consultants uncovered other previously untapped connections to the Underground Railroad in Lewiston, Youngstown, Lockport and other destinations across the city.

"As we did the research, we found out [Tubman] is important, but my God, there are so many other people who are local heroes who played a role in the Underground Railroad, and we are going to be able to tell the story in a meaningful, professional, world-class kind of way."

Dyster said it's also an accomplishment to save a building that, like the former Niagara Falls High School, once looked to be slated for the wrecking ball.

"We've lost so many buildings during urban renewal, so to save a Civil War-era building in itself is a milestone for the city, and it kind of builds on preservation and renovation of [other] historic structures and their reuse," he said.
The Customs House renovation meshes, Dyster said, with the strategy of placing international train passengers and tourists closer to the downtown core. The current Amtrak station is located in an old Lehigh Valley Railroad freight warehouse near the city's outer edges.

"One of the things my Dad always told our family was if you see tourists walking down the road with bags in their hands, you have to pick them up and give them a ride," he said. "Because these are mostly European tourists that are used to train stations being located downtown. They start walking down Lockport [Road], not realizing they have miles to go to get anywhere."

The mayor also sees the project as creating a market that could repopulate nearby Main Street, the city's once-vibrant commercial strip that faded into decline but has seen incremental investments in recent years.

"There's been a lot of interest in some of the newcomers on the street to develop enough forward momentum to do a wholesale development of the street, and we're thinking the train station project could be an impetus of that," Dyster said. "This sort of provides an anchor for the North End of the Main Street district, and it sort of themes it, too, that we want to make the history a part of this place."

Cottrell expects the heritage tourism market and Underground Railroad exhibits to be fueled by locals and the unending flow of visitors who flock to see the natural wonder each year.

"People are coming here anyway all the time looking for things to do," he said, "and I think the Underground Railroad will capitalize on them more to really get out into the county. Our goal is to get those tourists to venture out and search and seek all those stories."