Freedom Seekers: Niagara Falls Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad began with “the efforts of enslaved African Americans to gain their freedom by escaping bondage”. Niagara Falls was the small end of a funnel to channel people from all over the South across Niagara River into Ontario. On the Niagara Frontier, other crossing points included Youngstown, Lewiston, and Black Rock. But, nationally, Niagara Falls rivaled Detroit as an international link for freedom seekers.


During the 1800s, many fugitive slaves came through the Buffalo Niagara region, crossing over to Canada—and to freedom. They used the Suspension Bridge and the Cataract House ferry in Niagara Falls.

And some even swam across the river to freedom. The Underground Railroad—a secret network of people who assisted those escaping slavery by providing money, food, clothing, and temporary shelter—made this journey possible

Freedom seekers came to Niagara Falls primarily because it offered relatively easy access to Canada. The ferry at the base of the American Falls brought tourists and freedom seekers alike to Canada in a short, if dramatic, fifteen-minute ride.

The Cataract House was one of the two largest hotels in Niagara Falls. It was a magnet both for southern slave-holding tourists and for African American waiters, many of them southern-born. In 1850, more than sixty percent of African Americans working at the Cataract listed their birthplaces as a southern state or unknown/unlisted, suggesting that many of these people had escaped from slavery. The Cataract House was also the site of many escapes from slavery, and the staff of African American waiters (under head waiter John Morrison and others) helped enslaved people escape to freedom.


The importance of the Cataract House as the center of Underground Railroad activism in Niagara Falls cannot be over-estimated. The African American waiters who worked as Underground Railroad agents made this site one of the most important Underground Railroad nodes in the entire nation. at this location. John Morrison, head waiter at the Cataract House, often ferried people across the river himself.

Niagara Falls had a network of African American waiters who worked in the large hotels, especially the Cataract House and the International Hotel. Many of these waiters had themselves escaped from slavery. These waiters were a select group of well-organized skilled workers, and they provided critical assistance to freedom seekers on the very last leg of the journey.

Niagara Falls one of the country’s most important and dramatic crossing points from slavery into freedom.

5 FAST FACTS About The Underground Railroad in Greater Niagara

FACT #1:   Upstate New York became a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity, as escaping slaves made their way to crossing points along the Niagara River. This increased after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.
FACT #2:   Escaping slaves faced an arduous journey, traveling mainly at night—on foot, in wagons, or by train or boat—to elude bounty hunters.

The escape routes were called “lines”. Safe houses were “stations.” Those who assisted the slaves were “conductors.” And fugitives were “freight.”

FACT #3:   Cataract House: Employed a predominantly African American wait staff, many of whom had been born in Southern States. Head waiter, John Morrison often ferried freedom seekers across the Niagara River to Canada.
FACT #4:   Harriet Tubman led escaping slaves, including members of her own family, across the Suspension Bridge from Niagara Falls, NY to freedom in Ontario, Canada.
FACT #5:   Thomas Root, an Abolitionist from Pekin, NY had a special arrangement with one of the border guards at the bridge. Whenever Root used the coded message, “We have a load of Southern calico (cotton cloth),” he was allowed to cross the bridge without inspection.

Underground railroad New York Itinerary (1)

Visit to learn more before you go and to plan your next adventure!

Theresa Noni Charles, Cultural Travel Planner. Educator. Explorer.

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