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Dig aims to unearth Underground Railroad's daring history at old Cataract House site

Bill Bradberry sits in the quiet gazebo at Heritage Park, under the eye of the Turtle building, and casts his mind back in time.

In his imagination, it's 1850 or so. Directly in front of him is the railroad stop that brings visitors to Niagara Falls, many of them to the impressive, modern Cataract House, just steps away. Some of the visitors come from slave states; some have brought enslaved people with them as their servants.

As they descend from the train amid the hubub, those enslaved people would be keenly aware that right across that boiling river, within sight, is freedom.

They will soon learn that help is available inside the Cataract House, from brave, daring allies.

Among the intelligent and impeccably dressed corps of African-American waiters, who practice a showy, precision drill to serve guests their meals, there are many who were born in slave states. Some openly support abolitionist causes; most, if not all, have turned out when needed to physically thwart those who are trying to abduct people seeking freedom.

Fast forward nearly 100 years to 1945, when a smoky, slow-moving fire destroyed the Cataract House. As was the practice, the charred ruins of the building were bulldozed into the basement and covered with dirt.

The glorious history of the Cataract House, of which the most shining example was that corps of courageous waiters, was all but forgotten as the city brushed aside its storied past to embrace the uncertain future of urban renewal.

Starting this month, that bright past will be brought to light again. Students and archaeologists from the Archaeology Survey of the University at Buffalo will dig into the former footprint of the Cataract House, searching for artifacts of the city's significant and inspiring Underground Railroad history.

And fittingly, the spot in Heritage Park where the shovels will enter the dirt is believed to be where the kitchens once stood, where the waiters practiced their meticulous meal service and also worked as a team to help enslaved people flee to freedom.

For Bradberry, chairman and president of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission, this dig is a tangible symbol of the new interest in history and heritage. For him, it's been a never-forgotten link and a lifelong passion. "I think of myself as a child of the Underground Railroad," he said. "And finally some resources have become available to implement ideas that have been fermenting for decades."

Karolyn Smardz Frost's new book, "Steal Away Home," tells the true story of Cecelia Jane Reynolds, who escaped slavery when she was brought to the Cataract House in 1847.

"The history of this site has been documented because of the work historians have done over the years," said Karolyn Smardz Frost, an adjunct professor of History and Classics at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and senior research fellow for African Canadian History at York University's Harriet Tubman Institute in Toronto. HarperCollins Canada has just published Frost's "Steal Away Home," a narrative non-fiction biography of Cecelia Jane Reynolds, an enslaved woman who was brought from her home in Kentucky to the Cataract House in 1847 and escaped to freedom across the river.

The hotel opened in 1825 in a three-story building, operated by Parkhurst Whitney and later by his son and sons-in-law until the family sold it in the late 1800s.

Sitting in the gazebo in Heritage Park, across from the Red Coach Inn at 2 Buffalo Ave., Frost looked toward the vacant Turtle, the lawn and flowerbeds of the park, and the buildings and streets behind it. But she was clearly seeing the landscape of 150 years ago, pointing out where wings of the Cataract House had been built through the years, and where other important homes and hotels once stood.

Frost, a historical archaeologist, and historian Judith Wellman, director of Historical New York Research Associates and a professor emerita from SUNY Oswego, worked together on the historical documentation to demonstrate the significance of the area, which was the first step leading to the archaeological dig.

The historical work established the physical location of the long-gone hotel so the archaeological team led by Douglas J. Perrelli, director of the Archaeological Survey and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University at Buffalo "would know where to put the shovels in the ground," said Wellman.

They are working with Ally Spongr, director and curator of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, which is scheduled to open in March on the second floor of the 1863 Custom House on Whirlpool Street. Also participating in the project is Christine Bacon, the program and interpretation specialist for the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission and the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area.

Bradberry has a long list of people, agencies and organizations that have supported the city's Underground Railroad work, ranging from Niagara University to the City of Niagara Falls and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

"This is an unbelievably positive team that is larger than even the sum of its parts," said Frost. "We are all tuned into this historical matrix in our minds."

Perrelli calls the two 3-foot by 6-foot holes to be dug this month "test excavations." He said, "We are going to open up those two near each other on a former exterior wall of the Cataract House and see what we get."

Archaeologists will be on site every Friday and Saturday in September and October, so, Perrelli said, "we do a weekday where school groups can come out, and a weekend day where there is a different atmosphere in Niagara Falls."

But even when the archaeologists are not on site, the project will be informative. In addition to free "Digging for History" pamphlets prepared for visitors by the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area, Perrelli says up to 10 2-by-3-foot fact-filled posters will be placed on the secure fence around the dig will educate passers-by about the significance of the history that was made on that spot.

The Cataract Hotel opened in 1825 in a three-story building, operated by Parkhurst Whitney and later by his son and sons-in-law until the late 1800s. It grew in size and luxury for more than a century before burning down on Oct. 14, 1945. (Buffalo News file photo)

The plan is to supplement what Perrelli calls "a barrage of educational outreach information in the form of posters" with a dedicated shelter in the park, so visitors may sit in the shade, read the materials offered, and take in the events that happened on this significant place.

Perrelli and his students and other archaeology professionals will collect any artifacts found on the site and bring them to UB, where they will be cleaned of any contaminants, examined and catalogued. The next week, they will be returned to the site, where they can be examined by visitors.

"The beauty of archaeology is the wonderment of actually handling an object of material culture that hasn't seen the light of day in decades, or centuries, or in some cases, millennia," Perrelli said. "Here we have a situation where the significance and context of the Cataract House is undeniable, and very heavy, in a research context -- slavery, the Underground Railroad, people seeking freedom. It's going to be great to actually do the digging, produce the material and allow people to experience it in a research context."

Although community oral history and the occasional newspaper story preserved memory of the Underground Railroad efforts in Niagara Falls, Wellman drew from letters, documents, ledgers, newspaper reports and census returns to craft a well researched article in 2011 that clearly identifies not only the city's significance, but that of the Cataract House and its waiters.

Wellman's digging proved that the African-American waiters at the Cataract House covertly encouraged and assisted people seeking freedom, publicly supported abolitionist causes and more than once worked together to physically prevent enslaved people from being taken away by their owners.

"We were all just amazed," Wellman said, to find the amount of historic evidence linking the Cataract House waiters with abolitionist causes and the Underground Railroad. In 1846, John Morrison, an African American who was the head waiter at the Cataract House,  joined African American Falls residents Charles Patterson and John M. Anderson in making donations to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, an abolitionist newspaper.

Ally Spongr, left, director of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, stands in Heritage Park with Bill Bradberry, chairman of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission, and Karolyn Smardz Frost, a historical archaeologist, professor and author, near the site of the former Cataract House. The Cataract House was a nexus of Underground Railroad activity, with its waiter corps providing critical assistance. An archaeological dig will begin there this month. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

In 1856, the Niagara Falls Gazette reported that Morison's friends presented him with a gold-headed cane on the occasion of the end of slavery in the British West Indies. Then, in 1859, Morrison told his own story of ferrying enslaved people across the river to Canada. Wellman calls Morrison "a very important figure in the Underground Railroad."

Wellman's paper gives two reasons for the importance of Niagara Falls and the Cataract House on the Underground Railroad.  The city was "located at the convergence of road and rail lines that reached all over the U.S. and Canada, bringing people to one of the narrowest international crossing points in the entire Great Lakes region," she wrote.

But the geographic advantage was supplemented by the waiters, who, Wellman wrote, "formed a well-organized, long-term and proactive network of Underground Railroad supporters, with wide contacts on both sides of the border."

Although the case of Cecelia Reynolds and another enslaved woman, Nancy Berry, who fled to freedom in the mid-1850s, are well-documented, historians believe many more were shepherded to freedom from the Cataract House. In 1859, Cataract House guest Rachel Smith, of Lancaster County, Pa., spoke with John Morrison, who told her that many fleeing people who reached him mentioned the assistance of her father, Joseph. During the two nights Rachel Smith stayed at the Cataract House, Morrison "ferried some across the river," she wrote.

The New Orleans Times Picayune once carried this notice: "The proprietors of the Cataract House keep in their employ, as servants, a set of free negroes, many of whom have wives and relatives in Canada, and they have an organized plan of taking off all slaves that come to the house. The Messrs. Whitney keep these fellows in their employ,  knowing them to be engaged in this business, therefore it behooves all Southern people traveling North to avoid the Cataract House at the Falls of Niagara."

The Cataract Hotel opened in 1825 in a three-story building, operated by Parkhurst Whitney and later by his son and sons-in-law until the late 1800s. It grew in size and luxury for more than a century before burning down on Oct. 14, 1945. (Buffalo News file photo)

The fire and later bulldozing of the wreckage into the basement was both good and bad, Perrelli said.  From the perspective of excavating the site, he said, "it's awful, it's terrible, it's the worst scenario." However, "It's nice to know where it is, that it's still there, and it increases our chances of finding something, but it's going to make the architectural debris and the rubble sort of outweigh the little bits of material culture that we hope to find."

This dig can only go down about 5 feet, but Perrelli hopes that more may be done in the future."Some of the lower levels may be the most interesting," he said, including unsubstantiated reports that the Cataract House was built with slave quarters in the basement.

And then there is the once-thriving neighborhood, including possible cabins and shacks where the Cataract House workers lived. "What if there are little cabins there?" he asked, especially with outhouses and privies, where people disposed of broken and unwanted household items. "They might be the gold mines of material culture."

Perrelli said, "Bill Bradberry says, 'I just want to hold in my hand a spoon that I know that a waiter put down on somebody's table.' And that is powerful, and I expect to find it.  I think we will if we can get through the architectural debris into the personal items and the smaller bits of history that are almost certainly going to be there."

As the group explores the past, they also imagine a future for the city where its importance on the Underground Railroad is understood, with the waiters of the Cataract House getting the proper recognition and respect.

"This reminds people that Niagara Falls is a world-class site. This is a story with national and international significance," said Wellman.

Wellman has also researched the importance of history and heritage in luring visitors. "Recent studies suggest that 70-some percent of tourists visit a cultural or historic site on their vacations, and those who visit a cultural or historic site tend to stay longer and to spend more," she said.

"The future of the City of Niagara Falls is dependent on its history," said Bradberry. And, as bees buzzed though the clumps of coneflowers surrounding the gazebo and tourists walked across the grass of the park without the slightest inkling of what once happened there, he shook his head at the anonymity of the empty, peaceful site that once teemed with such intrigue and danger.

"The irony," he said, gesturing toward the rapids, "is that this spot where we are sitting is more important historically in this city than anything besides that cliff."


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