In 1793, Governor General of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, introduced legislation challenging the legal status of slavery. In 1834, slavery came to an end when it was abolished throughout the British Empire. In America, the northern states opposed slavery. This resulted in the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Although well intentioned, this act was a weak piece of legislation. While barring slavery in the north and soon to the states in the west, it still allowed slave owners to recapture former slaves living in the north. For African slaves looking to escape horrifying oppression, Canada became a place where they could live free. From 1840 to 1860, the Underground Railroad - a network of safe houses and secret routes; caves, churches, houses, and barns - was utilized by fugitive slaves and abolitionists to find freedom. Bounty hunters and marauders tracked them, unsympathetic people shunned them and tried to turn them around. Not everyone who tried survived the journey.
The Niagara River was often the last crossing for people escaping slavery in America. From the early 1800s until the end of the Civil War in 1865, thousands of fugitive slaves passed through the Buffalo/Fort Erie communities, major conduits of the Underground Railroad, as they traveled to freedom in Canada. Once in Canada, the railroad began at 'The Crossing,' which is located along the Niagara River by historic Fort Erie and ended at the B.M.E. (British Methodist Episcopal) Church/Salem Chapel in St. Catharines.
Set along the Niagara Parkway, Freedom Park commemorates the main terminus where fugitive slaves began their journey out of Buffalo into Upper Canada along The Underground Railroad. The escaping families were ferried across the Niagara River to Fort Erie. Here, they were accommodated at Bertie Hall. The former slaves would remain here until permanent accommodations and jobs could be found. Once this was done, the former slaves would disperse to areas throughout Upper Canada. One of the numerous safe houses along the Underground Railroad, Bertie Hall stands as a living landmark to the long, dangerous journey of fugitive slaves into Canada. Set right on the Niagara River, it became known as a refuge from bounty hunters who lurked on the banks of the opposite shore.
The Niagara River at the base of the Niagara Falls was another pivotal point for crossing into Canada. Using the suspension bridge near the current Whirlpool Rapids Bridge along the Niagara Parkway north of the falls was much easier than trying to cross massive Lake Erie or Lake Ontario. The suspension bridge is where Harriet Tubman and others crossed the imaginary line from slavery to freedom. Harriet Tubman’s first crossing into Canada was in 1856. According to a 1913 report in the Globe, Tubman, having brought a group safely across the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, told them: “Shout, shout — you are free.” Some then kissed the ground and exclaimed, “This is British soil.”
While some moved on to other parts of Canada, many of those the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman aided, settled, and remained in St. Catharines. They found employment as labourers, servants, coachmen, farmers, and cooks. By the mid-1850s, the community is estimated to have had between 500 and 800 residents. The Salem Chapel of the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church was built by former slaves and is still a thriving hub for the surviving community of their descendants.