Articles Canada

Merritt House in St. Catharines | Part of the Underground Railway?

St. Catharines in the Niagara Region has a rich history. One part which gets little notice… the city’s connection to the Underground Railway through Harriet Tubman and the Merritt House.

Starting with slavery.  William Hamilton Merritt was part of The Refugee Slaves Friends Society.  Started by the first mayor of St. Catharines, Elias Adams, in 1852.  Dedicated to providing assistance to escaped slaves.

William Hamilton Merritt - St. Catharines
William Hamilton Merritt

The Tunnel

There’s a tunnel under the Merritt House.  I’ve seen it personally during an investigation in 2000.  In the basement there’s a door leading to stairs going down.  A sub-basement and off-limits space.  

Legend says the sub-basement led to a tunnel, which then led to the Welland Canal.  Perfect for sneaking anything into the basement of the house.  Including people, during the days of the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman

The Railroad was a network of secret routes, safe houses and hiding places. Used by escaping slaves coming up from the US. 

This tunnel is said by some to be an example of the impressive history.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

This city once home to the famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman.  She arrived here in 1851 while escaping with 11 other slaves.  Remained till 1861. Over which time she brought about 300 people to safety.

She lived across the street from the Salem Chapel on Geneva Street.  This is where she attended church. Today the chapel honors her with a museum.

Salem Chapel in St. Catharines
Salem Chapel in St. Catharines

Although some have said the tunnel was part of the famed Underground Railway, a recent comment from Historical Niagara makes a good point…

Unfortunately the Tunnel at The Merritt house has no documents to prove it was ever used for Underground Railroad activities. The tunnel was built to access the Shickluna Shipyard and Taylor & Bates Brewery. It may have been used to smuggle booze during prohibition.

However, St. Catharines was a safe haven for freedom seekers. Using the tunnel makes no logical explanation.

More on the Merritt House 

William died in 1862 while on a boat near Cornwall, Ontario.  Left the house to his son Thomas.

The Merritt’s kept ownership until 1923.  They left. Donating it for military use as a convalescent home during World War I.

Converted to an Inn in 1928.  During this time there was big business in bootlegging.  For Prohibition, when government banned alcohol. First in the United States and then Canada.

Bootleggers were organized crime. Producing, receiving and selling illegal booze.  It’s believed they used the Merritt tunnel to sneak in the illegal drinks. 

If true, it would have been part of an operation overseen by Canada’s version of Al Capone, a man from Hamilton named Rocco Perri.

Only 10 years later they renovated the house. A much different use. 

The same use today.  In 1938 the house became a radio station.  Eventually becoming the home of 97.7Htz FM.

Last 2 Shows

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *