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New historian for Niagara Falls tries to bring past to present

NIAGARA FALLS – The history of Niagara Falls runs deep, from the first discovery of the cataracts by new settlers, to they city’s role on the Underground Railroad to the thundering power of the falls and how it has been used to generate electricity and power industry.

History also has become an important tool for tourism.

The city was recently faced with an opening for historian and named Elaine Timm to take over for former historian Michelle Kratts. The role is a volunteer one, but it remains vital in a city that prides itself on its links to the past and burgeoning history-tourism industry such as the Underground Railroad Museum and Niagara Falls History Tours.

Timm, 65, retired nine years ago from the Niagara County Social Services Department, where she worked as an adult protective case worker. She lives in the LaSalle section of Niagara Falls, but grew up in Wheatfield.

What got you interested in history?

I got started in genealogy, learning the history of my own family. But when you get interested in genealogy you want to know more about the times your family were living in.

Did you start in genealogy after your retirement?

Oh, no. I’ve been involved about 30 years now.

That’s before it was the craze it is now.

No computers back then. I went to visit the clerk’s office. I went to Batavia because my grandmother was born in Genesee County. I went to Batavia to personally look through the books and registers. There’s tons of church books I’ve looked through, too.

How far back did you trace your family?

Probably the early 1800s, not too far back. It’s the German side and the English/Scottish/Welsh side.

What about your own family history is intriguing?

When they came here, they spoke German, but around World War I they had to drop that or else. Everybody was suspect. The English side came over in 1912 – September. The family story was they were supposed to come over on the Titanic, but they were delayed. But (after research) I don’t think so. I heard that once the Titanic went down that White Star Line held up all their shipping while they refitted safety vests and life boats.

They came in on a sister ship of the Titanic. So that was kind of cool.

Were you interested in history growing up?

Not really, but as you grow older, you related it to personal things. It’s not just names and dates. You think some of my ancestors lived through that. One of my Welsh ancestors was born in 1898. She grew up in the 1900s and died in 2001. So she hit three centuries. I did a timeline of her life and thought – wow – all this stuff she lived through.

Niagara Falls has been getting people really excited about history hasn’t it?

Yes. Next year we are going to do the 125th anniversary of the city being incorporated, March 17, 1892. They merged a couple of the villages and become one big city. The mayor is going to appoint a steering committee. That was a time when electricity was really getting going.

Why are people so interested in history?

I think some of the more active people are getting older. When you are busy raising your kids, you don’t have time. There’s tons of people who put pictures on Facebook. We have a bunch of people in the city who are interested. It’s not even ancient history. People remember the old Falls Street when it was buzzing. The traffic was unreal. That went down with urban renewal in the 1960s. People who grew up then remember all the shopping and all the stores.

So is it history with a tinge of sadness?

It’s nostalgia. That’s why it’s important for us to grab on to these things and get them documented so it won’t totally be lost to the younger generations.

Did you volunteer or were you appointed historian?

The mayor appointed me. I was just known as someone interested in history. There was not a huge group involved (in local history events) but it is growing.

Why was this preservation of history so important to you and your group?

You keep finding out things you didn’t know. Think of all the stuff that came out of the industry along the Niagara River. The inventions that came out of Niagara Falls are unbelievable.

This area was a big industrial area.

Right. And this brought people to work. The city was really booming at one time.

What would you tell people about Niagara Falls?

Where do you start? There’s architecture, all these big, beautiful homes and beautiful buildings.

Unfortunately, many of them are gone, but they were built so well. There’s just so much. There are so many things that have been neglected. But there are so many groups. Buttery Research Initiative, The Tesla Group, the Historic Preservation Society, Oakwood Cemetery. You have a lot of people doing their own little things. I’d like to somehow bring it together.

The Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society offers history tours, doesn’t it?

They’ve been doing them for three years. That’s for both residents and tourists. The Niagara Falls Heritage Area has the Junior Ranger Program and the tour bus from Niagara Falls to Youngstown. I would encourage residents that it’s not just for tourists. Come out and learn about your community.

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For those who love history, the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center will offer an Underground Railroad Niagara Area Bus Tour, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 21. Seating is limited. More information is available at www.thenacc.org.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com. email: nfischer@buffnews.com