Digging for History: Cataract House Hotel

At the Cataract House Hotel site, archaeologists are bringing to light clues to the African American past here in Niagara Falls. By carefully removing layers of soil, the excavators can recreate the world in which waiters at this iconic hotel helped hundreds of freedom seekers cross over into Canada.

An archaeological site is a place where people lived or worked in the past. They left behind clues in the soil that can help us recreate the world in which they lived. Artifacts, building materials, and even stains in the ground are guideposts to the human experience at different times in our history. We are digging the Cataract House Hotel site to learn more about the people who lived and worked here.

In the years before the Civil War, a complex Underground Railroad network grew up around the Falls. African American waiters working in the flourishing Niagara Falls hotel and tourism industries formed the core of antislavery activism. Niagara Falls as one of the most frequently traveled crossing points for freedom seekers in the entire Great Lakes basin, became a nexus in the powerful struggle between slavery and liberty.

Over time, the abolitionist waiters at the Cataract House assisted in the escape of uncounted numbers of people, including enslaved servants of the hotel’s Southern guests. Underground Railroad operators throughout the northeastern US channeled freedom seekers to the Niagara River borderland. They were helped across the Niagara River to the opposite shore, where African Canadian communities provided a ready welcome.

Built in 1825 as a three-story stone building, the Cataract House underwent a long and complex series of additions, reconstructions, and renovations over its 120-year existence. By the time it was completed, the hotel, gardens, service areas, and outbuildings took up an entire city block. The hotel was gutted by re on October 14, 1945, and the Cataract House was demolished in April 1946.

The Archaeological Dig site is located at Heritage Park, just steps outside of Niagara Falls State Park. The site is on Main Street, across from the Red Coach Inn, 2 Buffalo Avenue.

The dig will take place Fridays and Saturdays in September and October 2017.

About the UB Archaeological Survey

The Archaeological Survey is a not-for-pro t research, contracting, and applied archaeology institution within the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The Survey has engaged in cultural resource management (CRM) projects for over 30 years.

About the Underground Railroad Heritage Area

It is the mission of the Underground Railroad Heritage Area to foster the discovery, interpretation and celebration of this rich local heritage at Niagara Falls. In partnership with historical archaeologist Karolyn Smardz Frost and historian Judith Wellman, the archaeological team is working to uncover clues to the stories of the Underground Railroad at the Cataract House Hotel site.

Did you know?

The flow of water was stopped completely over both falls on March 29th 1848 due to an ice jam in the upper river for several hours. This is the only known time to have occurred. The Falls did not actually freeze over, but the flow was stopped to the point where people actually walked out and recovered artifacts from the riverbed!

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