Stations of the Underground Railroad
Throughout the early to mid-1800s, the Niagara frontier served as the last stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves funneled north through New York City and Philadelphia. Though few records were kept, it is estimated that as many as 30,000 people may have passed through here on their way to Canada.
Seven “Stations,” or sculptures, honoring those who helped the escaping slaves are displayed throughout the region. Conceived by artist Houston Conwill in 1988, the project was largely sponsored by the Castellani Art Museum in Niagara Falls.
Each of Conwill’s sculptures is a tall, thin, bronze-and-copper “house” standing about six feet tall. At the top is an “attic” embossed with maps of the Underground Railroad and African symbols. At the base is a “cellar” with a door opening into a hiding place. On the door are notes taken from the cryptic correspondence once passed between stationmasters.
Information about the Stations of the Underground Railroad is available at the Castellani Art Museum, Niagara University (716/286-8200). The Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau (716/852-0511 or 888/228-3369) also publishes a free driving-tour guide to underground railroad sites throughout the region.
Four especially interesting sites are:
First Presbyterian Church, Lewiston, NY
Abolitionist Josiah Tryon attended the white stucco First Presbyterian Church (505 Cayuga St., Lewiston), built in the 1820s, and is buried in the graveyard next door. As the story goes, Josiah’s wealthy brother Thomas Tryon had built a mansion along the Niagara River gorge north of Lewiston. The house was so isolated, however, that Thomas’s wife refused to move into it, and Thomas allowed Josiah to hide fugitive slaves in his cellar.
Parliament Oak School, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
It was in the unassuming Parliament Oak School building (325 King St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada) that Canada’s Act of 1793 was signed, guaranteeing freedom to slaves and their descendants. A quote from Harriet Tubman reads: “When I found I had crossed, there was such a glory over everything. I felt as if I was in Heaven. I am free and they shall be free. I shall bring them here.”
St. John’s AME Church, Niagara Falls, NY
St. John’s AME Church (917 Garden Ave., Niagara Falls) was one of the first African American churches founded in Niagara County. From its hillside site, the fugitive slaves could see the beckoning lights of Canada and freedom.
Thomas Root Home, Pekin, NY
Located midway between Niagara Falls and Lockport, the Thomas Root Home (3106 Upper Mountain Rd., Pekin) contains a trapdoor leading to a 5-by-10-foot cellar. Here “volumes bound in black,” as the coded messages once read, spent the night before being driven to the border, hidden beneath piles of vegetables. The house is now privately owned, but the station is set amidst a small row of pine trees accessible to the public.
© Avalon Travel and Sascha Zuger from Moon New York State, 5th Edition