Digging Deep

Niagara Falls played a major role in the history of the Underground Railroad. A UB-led excavation aims to tell that story to the world

An 1882 map showing the proximity of the Cataract House (tinted) to the ferry landing (at the bottom of the incline railway just north of the American Falls) used by the hotel’s waitstaff to transport people to Canada. Niagara Falls map courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. Waitstaff photo courtesy of Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.; Gift of Arthur J. Telfer, Smith and Telfer Photographic Collection.

Story by Luke Hammill | Photographs by Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


PATRICK SNEED surely thought his life in chains was behind him.

It was 1853 and Sneed was working as a waiter at the Cataract House, a luxury hotel in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Sneed had escaped from slavery four years earlier, made his way north, and under the assumed name of Joseph Watson become a part of the hotel’s now-legendary African-American waitstaff, a group responsible for engineering the escape of numerous enslaved people across the Niagara River to Canada, even as they provided impeccable service to the hotel’s elite guests.

So Sneed felt relatively safe, but in 1853, a visitor to the Cataract House from Savannah, Ga., claimed to recognize him. On Aug. 27 of that year, two police officers arrived with a warrant for his arrest, ostensibly for the 1849 murder of a Savannah man.

Dozens of Sneed’s fellow waiters rushed to his defense, tearing him from the officers and rushing him into a ferryboat. According to Bill Bradberry (JD ’79), chair and president of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission, Sneed made it within 50 feet of the Canadian shore before the ferryman learned he was carrying an accused murderer and took him back to the American side of the river.

Many believed the charge to be trumped up in an effort to send the accused man back to slavery, and a judge agreed. Sneed was acquitted and promptly moved to Canada.

Cataract House in 1860.

The Cataract House in 1860. Photos courtesy of the Niagara Falls, N.Y., Public Library.

A Truly Historic Hotel

Sneed’s escape story is just one of many that have emerged from the Cataract House, now recognized as one of the most important nodes along the Underground Railroad network.

The opulent hotel, originally built in 1825 and continually added to over the decades, stood in what is now Heritage Park at Buffalo Avenue and Old Main Street, within sight of the rapids of the Upper Niagara churning toward the Falls. With its elegant furnishings, sweeping veranda and highly touted menu, it was host to such eminent guests as Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, who visited in July 1857, just three years before being elected president.

The hotel’s dining room in the late 19th century. Photos courtesy of the Niagara Falls, N.Y., Public Library.

It was also popular among wealthy plantation owners from the South, who would often vacation there over the summer, typically bringing a few “servants” with them. As a history of the hotel on the website of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center notes: “The presence of southern white families and enslaved ‘servants’ in the same hotel with a large and highly organized system of African American waiters (as well as some cooks and porters), all within easy access to Canada, combined to create a dramatic and often volatile conflict over slavery and freedom.”

According to Ally Spongr, director and curator of the Heritage Center, up to 80 percent of the Cataract House waiters had escaped from slavery themselves. She notes that the Whitney family, which operated the Cataract House, weren’t public abolitionists, but they certainly would have been aware of what was going on. “The waiters had to have known they had the support,” she says, “and that they wouldn’t lose their jobs.”

Sadly, the Cataract House was gutted by a fire in 1945 and demolished a year later, leaving many of its stories untold. Now, with funding from the Heritage Commission, and in conjunction with the city of Niagara Falls and Niagara Falls State Park, a team of researchers, alumni and students from UB’s Archaeological Survey is excavating the site in hopes of adding to that history. The goal is twofold: to illuminate the key role played by Niagara Falls and Western New York in the Underground Railroad, and to gain insight into the daily lives of the abolitionist waiters who worked there.

Digging in Public

It’s an unseasonably warm Saturday in October 2017, partway through phase one of the excavation, and Heather Lackos (BA ’12) is leading the team of five diggers for the day.

“A lot of the public has been stopping by to see what we’re doing,” says Lackos, who majored in anthropology at UB and now works at the Archaeological Survey. Indeed, a guest book at the dig displays signatures from all around the country and as far away as Australia.

According to project supervisor Douglas Perrelli (PhD ’01, MA ’94), clinical associate professor of anthropology at UB and director of the Archaeological Survey, the public nature of the dig reflects a “trend that’s definitely coming to the forefront” of the field. More and more, he explains, archaeologists are expected not only to perform their work but also to explain it to a curious public, in real time.

Today, there’s no shortage of foot traffic at the excavation site, just steps from one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions.

Scribbling in notebooks and on clipboards as they go, the diggers descend into the ground slowly and methodically, 10 centimeters at a time. They sift through the soil, studying the color and texture and sweeping off surfaces with small brooms as they dig.

The team, which consists of graduate, undergraduate and former students, believes they’re in the kitchen area of the hotel, of the most interest historically since that is where the waitstaff worked. They have already found three foundation walls with plaster still on them, which isn’t common, Lackos says, and gives important clues about the character and layout of the building. Using historical Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps as a guide, along with archival research and photographic evidence, she and her crew are trying to locate themselves on a floor plan of the building as they dig, as if piecing together a puzzle.

“It’s very important to be here and be part of telling the history of the region. ”
Samara Albuquerque

Chuck Curran and Georgia Robinson Bradberry of the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society are standing nearby, wearing shirts emblazoned with the phrase “We Dig History.” “This is unbelievably exciting,” Curran says of the excavation effort. Robinson Bradberry (no relation to Bill), who gives talks about the Underground Railroad at the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, imagines what it must have been like for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad to see the suspension bridge spanning the river to Canada after coming so far north. “It had to be awe-inspiring,” she says.

Two Niagara Falls residents—Renee Edwards and her father, Carl LaFountain—stop by to check out the dig. Edwards saw news about the excavation on Facebook, and LaFountain, who has lived here since 1958, read about it in the Niagara Gazette.

“It’s nice to see them care about history,” Edwards says, “since so much has been torn down.”

In addition to the three standing walls, one of which still holds a bundle of wires (likely telephone wires), the dig will ultimately unearth window glass, china, mortar, brick, pieces of plaster (one with floral wallpaper still on it), painted wood, bits of bottles, square-headed nails and a 1940s-era wine jug.

Project manager Kate Whalen (PhD ’17, MA ’11) is not dispirited by the relative dearth of artifacts, an indication that furnishings and décor were salvaged before the hotel was razed. “We were super jazzed that we found standing walls with plaster still on them,” she says. And, she adds, explaining the importance of seemingly mundane objects to the public is “part and parcel of public archaeology.”

The 10 or so students who return to the site the following spring to finish phase one of the excavation are being exposed to that public aspect of archaeology as part of their coursework, learning about the importance of Niagara Falls to the Underground Railroad through lectures and tours so they can better explain their work to passersby. Most of the diggers in this group are archaeologists in training who signed up for the UB Anthropology Field School, a hands-on, six-credit summer session course for those interested in pursuing the discipline as a career.

It has been a formative experience for Samara Albuquerque, an anthropology major who works in the Archaeological Survey’s lab and is set to graduate this fall. Originally from Brazil, Albuquerque moved to Western New York four years ago and is hoping to study archaeology in graduate school. “The Field School was a way for me to see if I would like the profession,” she says. “And I really do. It’s pretty cool.” It’s also, she adds, meaningful. “It’s very important to be here and be part of telling the history of the region,” she says.

Kate Whalen oversees archaeologists in training from the UB Anthropology Field School.

Project manager Kate Whalen (far right) oversees archaeologists in training from the UB Anthropology Field School.

Alas, this important, multifaceted project is in jeopardy. The dig is funded by a grant from the Heritage Commission, which in turn is funded with money from the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino under an agreement between New York State and the Seneca Nation of Indians. That agreement is currently in dispute, and the Senecas have stopped making payments.

The initial batch of funding for the excavation covered 20 dig days; the team used 15 in the fall and five in the spring.

The project was supposed to last several more years, but now, the Heritage Commission and Archaeological Survey have to scramble for alternative sources of capital to keep it going. “That’s our next order of business,” Perrelli says.

On the plus side, the Heritage Commission was able to complete a sister project before funding dried up, opening the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center in May. The museum sits in the former 1863 U.S. Custom House at Depot Avenue West and Whirlpool Street, about two miles north of the dig site, and is attached to a recently opened Amtrak station. Eventually, if all goes well, notable artifacts from the dig will be displayed at the Center.

Until then, the public can still learn a great deal about the Cataract House through a dedicated room at the museum that includes a re-created facade of the hotel’s kitchen and dining area, and interactive exhibits that tell the stories of people like Patrick Sneed; Cecelia Reynolds, who escaped one night in May 1847, settled in Toronto and continued to correspond for many years with her former mistress; and headwaiter John Morrison, a key organizer at the Cataract House who was personally responsible for ferrying several people across the river to freedom.

And yet there is still much to learn, which is why projects like the archaeological excavation are so important, Spongr says. For instance, historians aren’t sure about the specific strategies the waiters used to communicate with each other and with freedom-seekers who traveled to the hotel, and statistics showing the number of successful or attempted escapes are hazy.

“The research just keeps going,” she says. “We’re finding out new things every year.”

Luke Hammill (BA ’11) has reported for news organizations across the United States, including The New York Times, The Oregonian and Chicago Tribune, and now writes for The Buffalo News’ Hamburg Sun newspaper.