By Karen Noonan
Youngstown celebrated its role as a final stop on the Underground Railroad on Saturday, Sept. 5, with the dedication of a graphic rail at Constitution Park.
This is a difficult history to document, but Gretchen and Dennis Duling traveled across New York state visiting historic societies and churches to locate the narratives of individuals such as John P. VanDeusen of Newark, who recorded in his 1855 diary that he gave instructions to “James (a fugitive slave) to go to Lockport and then to Youngtown to see the hardware merchant Mr. Pardee,” who was in business at 409 Main St.
Following completion of their research and publication of their book, “A Final River to Cross: The Underground Railroad at Youngstown, NY” (2017), the Dulings worked with me and graphic designers at Goulah Design to create a graphic rail illustrating the Village of Youngstown’s pivotal role during the decades before the Civil War.
The Niagara River was the final river that fugitive slaves cross, and Youngstown ferrymen (some operated “horse ferry” boats) were among those who made it possible for at least 17 individuals to reach freedom on the Canadian shore.
Identifying those who assisted in this effort, the Dulings uncovered a long-forgotten history of Youngstown ferrymen and a woman who operated the ferry service across the river to Canada. The park sits just above what many believe to be the foundation for one of the ferry houses located along the river bank.
Dating from the 1840s, the village protected the structure, removing a 20th century addition that had been built on top of it. Standing on the platform above the structure, one can look across the river and reflect on the experience of those fortunate to have reached the Niagara Frontier and freedom and safety in Canada.
The graphic rail was financed by the Niagara Frontier National Heritage Area and Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, with assistance from the Village of Youngstown and the Town of Porter Historical Society. The dedication included a musical program with African American spirituals sung by William Cooper, assisted by Bob Sowydra on bass and Dennis Duling on piano.
A look at Saturday's ceremony.