Niagara’s Underground Railroad
Slaves in the early 1800s understood that the North was synonymous with freedom. While many escaped slavery and journeyed to the New England states, still others sought out safety across the Canadian border. Though many wealthy European immigrants brought their slaves with them to Upper Canada, slavery was abolished much sooner there than in the United States. The Niagara border connecting the United States to Canada was an opportunity for freedom. However, this freedom was not easily obtained, and the risky journey from the plantations of the Deep South could not be accomplished without assistance. The Underground Railroad developed as a result of kind-hearted and daring residents in the Niagara region.
Most of the early participants in the Underground Railroad were Quakers. They set up a network of safe houses and transportation routes which former slaves could use to make their journey northward less perilous. These depots could be any type of dwelling or business and included farms, hotels, warehouses and churches. Murphy Orchards, a stately brick home in eastern Niagara County, New York, served as a safe house for tens of thousands of escaped slaves. A secret tunnel under the barn still stands as an example of the lengths compassionate people would go to in order to protect and assist escapees.
On the border between the United States and Canada, the town of Lewiston, New York played a key role in the Underground Railroad movement. Many escaped slaves saw this as their goal of their journey, though it often served as just a stopping point before they continued on to Canada. With the help of local participants and such noted Underground Railroad personas as Harriet Tubman, over one hundred thousand former slaves traveled into Canada in the 1800s.
Built in 1848, the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge was one route which escapees used to cross over the Canadian border. As well, they relied on the nearby Whirlpool Bridge and the ferry services which crossed the Niagara River regularly. Steamboats on the river and Lake Ontario regularly stopped at Lewiston and many sympathetic captains gladly brought escaped slaves into Canada.
Due to its natural beauty, Niagara Falls attracted a large number of visitors from across the United States. Escaped slaves would find employment as waiters, dishwashers and bellhops in tourist hotels such as the Cataract House and later, the Eagle Hotel. These brave individuals assisted other escaping slaves in their journey, even helping to ferry them across the river at night.
In the 1800s the Underground Railroad secretly flourished across the eastern side of the United States, helping slaves on their way to freedom. Because of its proximity, the Niagara region of upstate New York provided escaping slaves with the opportunity to cross the border into Canada.