The Underground Railroad
Late 19th Century Tunnels in Niagara
I submitted a question to “Search Engine” in the St. Catharines Standard newspaper.
Here is the newspaper article dated Saturday, February 27, 2010 . . . . Robert Sewell.

'Underground' was Metaphorical
Q: Since retiring in 1998, I have hiked around and explored various parts of Niagara including some old tunnels. Although these tunnels were built in the late 19th century, some people feel strongly they were a part of the Underground Railway.

Some folks have told me with absolute certainty that the “Tunnel Behind the Falls” was part of the Underground Railway and that escaped slaves rode a secret train of some sort under the Niagara River to get to Canada!

Is there any tiny grain of truth behind any of these stories? Did escaped slaves use any tunnels here in Niagara to get from one place to another or for hiding? If so, are there any known remains of these tunnels or does any one know where they were?

A: The idea escaped slaves crossed the Niagara border through tunnels has been speculated about, but never proven. Historian Wilma Morrison of the Norval Johnson Heritage Centre in Niagara Falls said they haven’t been able to establish if any tunnels were used.

What is known is that people did come across the Niagara River, up near Fort Erie or at the lower river.

Morrison said the earliest group who came fought on the side of the British during the American Revolution. They were given land grants and were freed. John Graves Simcoe established the first government of Upper Canada in 1792 and because he’d been involved in the antislavery movement in Britain, tried to pass an act to free slaves. Morrison said slave owners fought him so the Act Against Slavery of 1793 was watered down to say no new slaves could be brought into the area.
Word spread to the U.S. that people could come into Upper Canada and be free.

“We haven’t been able to establish any particular tunnel,” she said. “What we know is wherever there was water, people came in and they were assisted in many instances by others to get to freedom in Canada.”

A lot of people came up rivers and lakes, taken aboard ships in Chicago and other places. Quakers were often involved in helping people come across the border.

The problem was trying to outrun bounty hunters, who would wait at the crossings. Morrison said there are stories of people approaching bridges in 1850s and immigration officers allowing them in, but turning back the bounty hunters.

“I can’t fathom how brave and wonderful our ancestors were,” Morrison said. “We should be so extremely proud of them and what they did to get here to establish themselves and then help to build communities once they arrived.”

Morrison said the idea of travelling through tunnels may be a product of people’s imaginations when they hear the words “Underground Railroad.”

Morrison said trains didn’t come into existence in the area until the 1850s and some of the bridges are not that old.
One man Morrison knows said he grew up believing it was an underground train and a history guide she knows had a similar encounter.

“We’ve had some Americans come here and there was a lady so angry with her because she didn’t show her the underground trolley cars or subway.”
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