With the completion of the new $43 million, 40,000 sq’ train station Niagara Falls Amtrak Station, a new museum inside the depot scheduled to open in the summer of 2017, will bring to life the vital role Niagara Falls played in shaping and defining an important piece of American history. The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center will pay homage to the role that Niagara Falls has played in creating a safe passage to Canada for African American slaves seeking freedom and liberty, while also chronicling the struggles and challenges of the freed slaves as they made their way north to Niagara.
For many, Niagara Falls was the last stop on the Underground Railroad and one of the first places where former slaves could literally see freedom just on the other side of the Niagara River in Canada (Broderick Park in Buffalo was another). Niagara Falls is therefore not only a major player in U.S. and African American history, but a city that played a force of good, of hope, compassion and light during one of the darkest periods of American history.
As I thought more and more about the significance of Niagara Falls as a portal to freedom, I realized that the city’s historic role in helping people to a better future, sewed the seeds for later acts of kindness that took place across Western New York, and continue to take place to this day.
Nowhere better is this seen than in Buffalo itself. Indeed for all the wonderful things that Buffalo represents, perhaps the most overlooked attribute of this city is the warm and wide arms it routinely extends to refugees from around the world, very often from impoverished and war torn countries – people seeking freedom and liberty from oppression, violence and tyranny, not unlike what the freed African American slaves were seeking and found in Western New York. In essence, we can say that what Buffalo does today to welcome and support refugees from countries around the globe is an extension of the role that this region played over 150 years ago in welcoming refugees of slavery from the South. We owe thanks to myriad organizations for this, including Journey’s End Refugee Services, The International Institute, Jewish Family Service and Jericho Road Community Health Center.
If we need further proof of the Buffalo Niagara region’s commendable history of resettling immigrant populations, we need look no further than our own Erie Canal. We know the canal as the waterway that opened up inland transportation to the booming western US territories of the 1800’s. But with all the goods that the canal transported, it also transported newly arrived immigrants – Italians, Poles, Germans, Irish – people who created communities across Western New York all which contributed greatly to the economic, social, political and cultural climate of the region.
Not surprisingly, two common themes emerge in both the movement northwards of the freed slaves and western movement of the European immigrants – the themes of transportation and hope, both which carried thousands and thousands of people to better lives and new beginnings, thanks to the generosity of Western New Yorkers.
In keeping with those two themes, let’s hope that the Niagara Falls Amtrak Station, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center and the Harriet Tubman Plaza, will once again bring hope, opportunity, optimism and prosperity and to the Cataract City and beyond.
Hat tip to Joe Incao for his inspiration for this piece.