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File photo by Mark Williams Jr.
File photo by Mark Williams Jr.

Higgins: Nearly $250,000 for UB supports project preserving history of Cataract House in Niagara Falls


Tue, Oct 11th 2022 02:40 pm

Congressman Brian Higgins announced a federal grant totaling $249,369 awarded to the University at Buffalo. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and awarded through the Collaborative Research grant program, the grant funding will lay the foundation for a print manuscript and a corresponding website on the Cataract House, historically located in Niagara Falls.

“As a major stop on the Underground Railroad, the Cataract House is not only an important part of our local history, but also our national history,” Higgins said. “Funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities continues efforts throughout the Western New York community to preserve the historic events that took place at the Cataract House for many generations to come.”

Higgins’ team said, “The Collaborative Research program aims to advance humanistic knowledge by fostering rich scholarship accomplished through collaboration by teams of two or more scholars. The National Endowment of the Humanities encourages projects that incorporate multiple points of view and pursue new avenues of inquiry in the humanities. Projects awarded through the program must have tangible and sustainable outcomes such as a coauthored or multiauthored book, a themed issue of a peer-reviewed journal, a series of peer-reviewed articles, a born-digital publication, or an open-access website or other digital research.”

In order to continue on-going efforts to preserve the Cataract House’s storied history, the University at Buffalo will use grant funding to support research and preparation toward a project titled “From the Cataract House to Canada: African American Activism and the Underground Railroad in the Niagara River Borderland.” Undertaking this research, UB will create a print manuscript and an accompanying website about the Cataract House Hotel.

“We are thankful that the National Endowment for the Humanities recognizes the importance of our project, ‘From the Cataract House to Canada: African American Activism and the Underground Railroad in the Niagara River Borderland,’ and the strength of the research team we have put together,” said Doug Perrelli, clinical assistant professor of anthropology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, and director of the UB Archaeological Survey. “This collaborative research award brings together scholars from across New York and Canada to create a book and website that will present and preserve the amazing history of activism that brought freedom seekers to freedom on the international borderland of Niagara Falls. The project will delve deeply into the historic context of the Underground Railroad and the specific people that helped so many to escape slavery. The perspectives of descendants of freedom seekers and the local community will help us recognize and celebrate enormous gains made for humanity that occurred here in western New York and Southern Ontario.” 

Higgins’ team shared, “Established in 1825, the Cataract House was a world-renowned luxury hotel that became one of the most important stops on the Underground Railroad. It was also the site of many escapes from slavery. The staff of African American waiters, led by head waiter John Morrison and others, brought countless Freedom Seekers to safety across the border in Canada.

“The hotel reached its peak in the late 1800 through 1920, welcoming notable guests like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. It was purchased by a developer in 1945 who sought to restore the aging property, but a fire erupted later that year destroying the building. After the fire, debris from the hotel, including plaster, wood, stone and brick, were used to fill the basements of the burned structure. An archeological dig led by the University at Buffalo at the site of the hotel between from 2017-18 and 2022 revealed artifacts and structural remains of the hotel.

Sara Capen, executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area said, "For over a decade, the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area has worked alongside the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Commission to fund and expand the research surrounding the role of the Cataract House in the Underground Railroad. This history, specifically the role of the African-American waiters, is the foundation of the visitor experience at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. Our organizations are thrilled that the research will continue under this grant, and the long under-told stories of the Cataract House will proceed to inspire visitors to the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center."

In September, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation rededicated Heritage Park, the pocket park outside of Prospect Point in Niagara Falls State Park, as Cataract House Park. It marks the historic site where the hotel once sat.

To learn more about the Cataract House, visit https://www.niagarafallsundergroundrailroad.org/underground_railroad_site/site-of-the-cataract-house/.

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