Secrets of the Underground Railroad

"I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger." - Harriett Tubman

During the 1800s, hundreds of heroic men and women in the Niagara region worked with Harriet Tubman to assist slaves as they escaped to freedom in Canada. Dozens of churches, homes, farmhouses and other dwellings in Niagara County were used as hiding places in the Underground Railroad movement. Now, visitors can tour many of these sites and discover the secrets of the treacherous journey that thousands of slaves experienced as they escaped to freedom.

Before touring the sites, visitors are encouraged to visit a world class exhibit dedicated to interpreting the role that the Niagara region played in the Underground Railroad movement. Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University recently opened the new Freedom Crossing: The Underground Railroad in Greater Niagara Regional Interpretive Center. The exhibit offers video, artifacts, photographs and audio stations.

Visitors to Freedom Crossing will learn how Harriet Tubman led escaping slaves to Canada over the Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls and how Great Lakes steamship sailor, William Wells Brown, transported slaves across the Niagara River.  Located on the bank of the Niagara River, it honors the courage of fugitive slaves. It also highlights and celebrates the historical importance of the Niagara River as a gateway to freedom.

At Murphy Orchards in Burt, New York, visitors can tour an Underground Railroad site that has maintained much of its original character. The farm's original owners, Charles and Libby McClew, housed escaping slaves in a secret room beneath the barn, which is still preserved today.

Other stops related to the Underground Railroad movement include:

  • Lewiston First Presbyterian Church (33 Cayuga Street, Lewiston, NY). The cemetery at this church is the burial place of Rev. Josiah Tryon, an abolitionist leader, who with his business partners, Amos Tryon and Augustus and Peter Porter, founded a shipping business that they used as a front to assist escaping slaves. Tryon built a home on the Niagara River with nine descending mini-cellars, which were constructed to help slaves get as close as possible to the Niagara River and to Canada. Tryon's effort was referred to as "Tryon's Folly." Today, a commemorative monument stands at the church.
  • St. Johns AME Church (917 Garden Avenue, Niagara Falls, NY). This site, while not a hiding place for escaping slaves, played a key role in the Underground Railroad. The church helped fund the movement, providing funds for transportation and guides who helped slaves escape to Canada. A monument stands at the site.
  • Young Women's Christian Association of Lockport (32 Cottage Street, Lockport, NY).  Originally the home of Abijah Moss, a prominent female banker, slaves found refuge in a secret room at this site. The home is now the YWCA Lockport headquarters. A monument stands in recognition of the movement.

Even after the Civil War, the Niagara region played a prominent role in the de-segregation movement. The modern-day NAACP traces its roots to the "Niagara Movement," founded by W.E.B. DuBois.

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