NIAGARA FALLS – African- American spirituals resounding in the ears of visitors.
Tales told of conductors, like Harriet Tubman, who made the Underground Railroad function.
An atrium serving as an entrance and gathering space for visitors.
Those are some of the features planned for the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Interpretive Center, to be located in the former U.S. Customs House on Whirlpool Street, just north of Ontario Avenue.
The center would be ready to open next spring at the earliest. Exhibits for the center are roughly seven or eight months from being completed and installed, a consultant for the project said Monday during a public meeting in the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute.
While slightly limited by space – the facility will be about 3,500 square feet – the project intends to tell the story of the path to freedom along the Underground Railroad, highlighting the region’s role in that story.
The present-day site of the Whirlpool Bridge, just across the street from the facility, is where slaves traveled to freedom by crossing into Canada thanks to the Underground Railroad.
The Niagara River and Niagara Gorge were huge impediments faced by those who had already faced a long, difficult experience, said Michael Radtke of Richmond, Va.-based Riggs Ward Design, the firm designing the exhibits.
“The crossing was the end of a rather extensive journey to get to Niagara Falls, specifically,” Radtke said. “Crossing the river gorge was kind of the last piece of the puzzle, if you will.”
The center ultimately will be part of the city’s new train station, which will be attached to the Customs House. An atrium will sit between the station and the Customs House.
The Underground Railroad center would be able to open before construction of the train station and atrium is complete, said Thomas J. DeSantis, secretary to the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission, which is undertaking the project.
Funding is already in place to complete the exhibits, which will cost about $500,000, including installation.
The indoor exhibit space is designed to hold roughly 35 to 40 people at a time and take roughly 30 to 45 minutes to go through, although project organizers are considering adding programming outside the atrium and across the street at the Whirlpool Bridge. One section of the facility will feature windows looking out at the bridge.
Sara Capen, project director for the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, a federal effort to boost heritage tourism, credited the work of the commission, citing the Falls as “the hub of the story” of the Underground Railroad.
“This is, in my mind, a transformational project,” Capen said.
The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor was it a railroad; it was a series of routes used by fugitive slaves to escape from slavery in the South to free states in the North and to Canada, with stops at safe houses along the way.