Niagara Falls is more than a pretty sight — for decades, it was a path to freedom for slaves

Niagara Falls is more than a pretty sight — for decades, it was a path to freedom for slaves
Niagara Falls Claire Hannum/Mic
Niagara Falls Claire Hannum/Mic

Beloved destinations often have overlooked histories. Mic dives into how the past shapes what travelers see today.

Decked out in a garish blue poncho on board the Maid of the Mist, I first saw Niagara Falls’ enormous, foamy mass of water when I was 24 years old. On every side of me, fellow tourists took selfies as they tried to avoid getting soaked by the mist, with perhaps none of us realizing the surrounding region was so much more than a pretty vacation site.

The Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge was built in 1848 and spanned 825 feet, connecting Niagara Falls, Ontario, to Niagara Falls, New York. Towering over the Niagara River and two and a half miles from Niagara Falls, the double-decker structure was conceived to withstand the pressure of swirling Class 6 rapids in the gorge below it. After its construction, it became a busy thoroughfare for railroad traffic, pedestrian traffic and carriages.

A drawing of the Niagara Falls suspension bridge
A drawing of the Niagara Falls suspension bridge Library of Congress

When I first saw the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, which now stands in the former suspension bridge’s place, it looked untouchable from its perch high above the river. “Slaves used to escape across the old bridge, you know,” a local tour guide told me casually. Unimaginable heroism and bravery had taken place in the very spot where we were standing.

The Niagara region, now known mostly for its namesake waterfall, was the final stretch on many escaped slaves’ journeys to freedom in Canada. The bridge, as well as nearby Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, was the crossing point for countless people fleeing the U.S. for a new beginning. Sometimes, these life-changing journeys occurred in broad daylight.

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In the 1850s and 1860s, the Niagara Falls area was home to a network of abolitionists, and even Harriet Tubman regularly used the area as a pit stop on her frequent journeys leading escaped slaves to freedom in Canada.

“When [tourists] come here, they look across [the water], and many visitors don’t realize that that’s Canada,” Sara Capen, executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area in New York, said in an interview. “For someone escaping slavery, that was freedom. And you had to cross this one river and you were there.” Beyond the Suspension Bridge, other escaping slaves rowed themselves across the Niagara River, boarding rowboats at a ferry landing at the base of the American Falls. The falls (and likely a tourist or two) would have been in their line of vision as they crossed to the other side.

A photograph of Niagara Falls from the late 1800s
A photograph of Niagara Falls from the late 1800s William Henry Jackson/Library of Congress

The area’s travel industry, already thriving in the 1800s, provided another means for escape. When southern plantation owners took vacations to see Niagara Falls, they often brought their slaves with them to mind their baggage, care for children or tend to other needs. The hotels lining the waterfront employed free African-American wait staff, and those staff members regularly helped those visiting slaves escape, Capen said. Staffers kept their eyes open for opportunities, like when a slave’s owner stepped into another room or became distracted by another happening in the hotel. When those moments arrived, the waiters didn’t hesitate to spring into action, ushering slaves out of the building — and often out of the country, across the river to freedom. White abolitionist hotel owners knew what was going on and looked the other way to enable the slaves’ escapes.

Fugitive slave laws, which called for the return of slaves who escaped to another state, compelled many escapees to flee further, until they reached Canada. “A fugitive slave was never truly free in the North, especially after the passage of a new law in 1850 that made it very difficult for fugitive slaves to escape detection,” Manisha Sinha, a professor of American History at the University of Connecticut and author of The Slave’s Cause, said in an interview. “So this notion that one had to really escape to Canada to be truly free was something that many fugitives carried with them.”

To help make this happen, abolitionists formed networks that stretched from border slave states like Virginia, Maryland and Delaware all the way to Pennsylvania, Manhattan and, ultimately, upstate New York.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls Claire Hannum/Mic

Looking up at the site of the Suspension Bridge, it’s easy to imagine people making their way across in pitch darkness, gripped by chilly air and gingerly taking steps on the rickety structure while trying not to think about where the dark sky might end and the murky rapids below might begin. In reality, slaves often crossed the bridge in the daytime — this was long before Americans needed to present passports at modern border checkpoints. Still, there was always the threat of bounty hunters pursuing escapees, and it was impossible to fully exhale until escaped slaves had passed the border, Capen said.

In 1856, one of Harriet Tubman’s journeys to Canada with escaped slaves took place on the bridge in broad daylight. The group Tubman led included escaped slave Josiah “Joe” Bailey, who’d been featured on runaway search posters throughout Maryland and Delaware. The high reward Bailey’s former owner offered for his return made the escapee particularly notorious.

While fellow fugitives on the journey talked or sang as they crossed the bridge by train, Bailey remained quiet, with his head down. Tubman tried to convince Bailey to take in his surroundings, but he was still too terrified of being caught to engage with much of anything. When the train at last passed the border, she told him, “Joe, you’re in Queen Victoria’s dominions! You’re a free man!” At that moment, Bailey tearfully rose his head, singing and shouting joyfully.

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Despite its popularity with tourists, the region has a few sites dedicated to this stretch of its history — the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center has a Freedom Crossing exhibit, and the nearby town of Lewiston has a monument. In 2018, a long-awaited Underground Railroad Heritage Center will open near the bridge. The building that will house the Center, which dates back to 1863, has been in various development phases since 1987. In 2003, it was acquired by the City of Niagara Falls. Last year’s construction of a new Amtrak train station adjacent to the building drew attention to the property and sparked an effort toward opening the Heritage Center. Beginning in early 2018, visitors will be able to better grasp the Niagara area’s role in helping escaped slaves reach freedom.

“We want to recognize everyone that risked their lives or livelihood to get to freedom, or to help others to freedom,” Capen said. “We want to recognize the ordinary people, like the African-American waiters who made an extraordinary decision to help others. Everyday, ordinary people can change lives.”