Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, and the bridges at Niagara Falls.
While asserting that the Whirlpool site was used by Tubman, one noted authority suggests that Tubman "may also have crossed over on the suspension bridge constructed in 1851 between Lewiston and Queenston, Ontario." (3) Some local tradition denies that Niagara Falls was an Underground Railroad crossing at all. Moreover, even those who think that the city was an Underground Railroad crossing are confused about which remnants of several different bridges are associated with Tubman. Our purpose is to replace "urban legend" with rigorous evidence as to which bridge Tubman used, and what remains of the bridge today.
This task first requires finding reliable narratives that connect Underground Railroad activities to Niagara Falls, then connecting those activities to specific sites within the present city. We have found such narratives and through the use of maps, photographs, and even a bit of high school trigonometry we can demonstrate that Niagara Falls was indeed an important Underground Railroad crossing; that Harriet Tubman was one of a number of Underground Railroad operatives who escorted refugees across the international border there; and that the remains of the bridge that they used are still intact. In fact, at Niagara Falls the quest for freedom intersected with one of the most remarkable achievements in nineteenth century bridge-building.
The Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman at Niagara Falls, New York
We know from a number of narratives published by the Philadelphia abolitionist and Underground Railroad organizer, William Still, that Niagara Falls was both an Underground Railroad crossing point into Canada, and a place in which refugees, and those who assisted them, regularly stayed. Using those accounts, we need to establish where in the present city of Niagara Falls, New York Underground Railroad activity took place, what was the nature of the activity, and what part Harriet Tubman herself took in it.
By the 1850s two towns existed at the site now encompassed by the City of Niagara Falls, New York. One, Niagara Falls, was above the cataracts near the southern end of the old portage to Lewiston below the Niagara Escarpment. By the 1830s it was a thriving milling and light industrial site, as well as a tourist destination, connected to Lockport, Buffalo, and towns below the escarpment by railroad and horse-drawn coaches. It was formally incorporated as a village in 1848. The second, originally known as Bellevue, was two miles north and owed its genesis in the mid-1840s to plans to build an international railroad bridge there at what was the narrowest point along the Niagara River. It was formally incorporated as Niagara City in 1854. (4)
While the incorporated name of the village at the American end of Roebling's bridge was Niagara City, (5) by the mid-1850s it was popularly known as "Suspension Bridge." Railroad timetables listed stops at both "Suspension Bridge" and "Niagara Falls" (6) When Franklin Pierce appointed Jacob Henning deputy postmaster in 1856, it was to a post in "Suspension Bridge, in the county of Niagara, State of New York. (7)
In 1856, a letter from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Underground Railroad agent, Joseph C. Bustill published by William Still, suggests that there was a regular Underground Railroad connection between that city and Niagara Falls. (8) James H. Forman brought his fiance to Canada via Niagara Falls, New York. On June 5, 1856 he wrote Still from Niagara Falls that he expected Miss Mariah Hill to leave Norfolk on the 13th on the steamer Virginia bound for Philadelphia, and asked Still's assistance in seeing her safely onto the train from Philadelphia bound for "Suspension Bridge Niagara Falls." He asked still to have her telegraph him what time she would leave Philadelphia so that he might meet her at Suspension Bridge. He concluded with the instruction: "When you telegraph me direct [it] to the International Hotel, Niagara Falls, N.Y." (9) The reference to the International in Niagara Falls village, (10) suggests that Forman frequented the hotel on the United States side to receive communications, even though he lived in Canada. Forman's story ended happily. He again wrote from Niagara Falls that Miss Moore had arrived on June 30, and that he had met the train in Niagara Falls, New York. They were married "in the English Church Canada" on July 22. Again he ends with the instruction "Direct your letter to the International Hotel, Niagara Falls." (11)
Rev. Hiram Wilson of St. Catharines, regularly provided refuge for escapees, and often crossed the border to Niagara City [Suspension Bridge] to assist them. He wrote Still from there on November 30, 1858:
"I am happy to inform you that Mrs. Jackson and her interesting family of seven children arrived safe and in good health and spirits at my house in St. Catharines, on Saturday evening last. With sincere pleasure I provided for them comfort quarters till this morning, when they left for Toronto. I got them conveyed there at half fare, and gave them letters of introduction to Thomas Henning, Esq., and Mrs. Dr. Willis, trusting that they will be better cared for in Toronto than they could be at St. Catharines." (12)
Lewis Tappan reported to Still the story of Ann Maria Weems' escape to Canada across the Suspension Bridge. Dressed as a boy, "Joe," Weems was accompanied on the train from Brooklyn by Rev. Mr. Freeman, the pastor of a black church in Brooklyn. Freeman's account of the journey reported:
"On reaching Rochester, 1 began to ask myself 'how shall we get over Niagara Falls?' I was not sure that the cars ran across the Suspension Bridge; besides, I felt that we were in more danger here, than we had been in any other place. Knowing that there was a large reward offered for Joe's apprehension. I feared there might be some lurking spy ready to pounce upon us. But when we arrived at the Bridge, the conductor said: "Sit still; this car goes across.' You may judge of my joy and relief of mind, when I looked out and was sure that we were over! Thank God, I exclaimed, we are safe in Canada!" (13)
The foregoing narrative accounts demonstrate that without a doubt both the villages of Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge were significant sites of Underground Railroad activity at least as early as 1853. Multiple conductors and the refugees that they escorted passed though the villages. They also regularly stopped there to conduct business and to receive communications. Not only that, they regularly crossed the international border from Canada back into the United States for business and personal purposes.
How does Harriet Tubman fit into the historical context of these events and the larger picture of things? First it is important to have as clear an understanding as possible of the chronology of Tubman's Underground Railroad activities. We are lucky that four scholarly studies of Tubman have been published since 2003. (14) According to these works, Harriet Tubman escaped enslavement in 1849, and by late 1851 was relocating family members and others to St. Catharines. St. Catharines remained her base of operations until 1857 or 1859. She rescued her parents in 1857 and took them to Canada, relocating to Auburn, New York in 1859. Alternatively, she may have rescued them earlier, and lived in St. Catharines until 1857 when she moved to Auburn. In any case, there is documentation that Tubman crossed the Niagara River at "the Suspension Bridge." (15)
Her earliest dictated autobiography by Sarah Bradford mentions the story of Joe Bailey, who Tubman helped cross to Canada in 1856: "... they were to come through New York State, and cross the Suspension Bridge .... They passed along in safety, and at length found themselves in the cars, approaching Suspension Bridge." The account of Joe Bailey's 1856 crossing records: "The cars began to cross the bridge. At length Harriet knew by the rise in the center of the bridge, and the descent on the other side, that they had crossed 'the line."...The cars stopped on the other side. Joe's feet were the first to touch British soil, after those of the conductor." (16)
Clearly, Tubman used a railroad bridge to cross into Canada. Furthermore, her bridge was located near, but not next to, Niagara Falls: "Harriet was very anxious to have her companions see the Falls. ... 'Joe, come look at de Falls! 'Joe, you fool you, come see de Fails! It's your last chance." (17) A later edition of her dictated autobiography adds aural detail: "There was now but 'one wide river to cross,' and the ears rolled on to the bridge. In the distance was heard the roar of the mighty cataract, and now as they neared the center of the bridge, the falls might be seen." (18)
Almost every recent biography of Tubman uses this account as the basis for its discussion of her role in bringing slaves to Canada. A manuscript source from 1856 mentions that abolitionists helping Tubman transport slaves to freedom made it "our custom to forward all directly on to the Bridge." (19) An 1863 newspaper article mentions nine trips that Tubman made to free slaves, including the 1857 rescue of her parents and their delivery to St. Catharines, presumably via Suspension Bridge. (20) There seems to be agreement that Tubman's last rescue mission to the American South as an Underground Railroad conductor was in late 1860. While scholars disagree on some details, they agree that her Underground Railroad career began no earlier than 1850 and ended in 1860. The evidence demonstrates that Harriet Tubman transported fugitive slaves across the Suspension Bridge into freedom in Canada. But we can verify only two such crossings, one in 1856 and one in 1857.
Tubman is known as a legendary "Moses of Her People," but her precise numerical impact is much lower. One standard reference work, which interestingly makes no mention of Suspension Bridge, repeats the claim that Tubman "freed several thousand runaways;" (21) As the historian Milton C. Sernett has written, even '"the traditional belief that Tubman rescued three hundred individuals during nineteen trips cannot withstand serious historical scrutiny." (22) Our challenge is to verify the historical reality of Harriet Tubman's crossings, and the extraordinary artifact--an extant, verifiable structure from the Underground Railroad--that Niagara Falls possesses without veering into the mythic representation of Tubman. She herself helped cultivate this image and used traditional African American oral methods to dramatize her experiences. During and after her life both nineteenth-century abolitionists, modem historians, and activists bolstered Tubman's legacy. The historical record proves Harriet Tubman's link to Suspension Bridge; it does not verify a mass exodus of liberated slaves, an institution that remained legal in the State of New York until 1827.
The narrative accounts strongly suggest that the suspension bridge used by Harriet Tubman and others to escort their charges across the border to freedom was located at the Bellevue/Niagara City site, just south of the Whirlpool in the Niagara River. To verify that, and to determine whether or not anything remains of the bridge used in freedom crossings, we now examine the construction history of the bridges at three sites along the river.
Identifying the Bridges at the Whirlpool
Suspension bridges were especially appropriate for spanning the gorge of the Niagara River. The method of construction, in which the bridge traffic deck, or decks were suspended from cables supported by towers at each end, allowed for lengthy, uninterrupted spans. This was essential in situations where, as in the case of a deep gorge, building numerous supporting piers was out of the question. At Niagara, the presence of treacherous rapids in the river exacerbated the problem of building supporting piers. Economic considerations also made the suspension bridge an attractive alternative. Suspension bridges require significantly less material than other types. (23)
Despite their advantages, suspension bridges were cautiously embraced in the middle of the nineteenth century. In England, France, and the United States between 1831 and the early 1850s a disturbing number of the bridges had collapsed under the feet of marching men or herds of cattle, with considerable loss of life. One of the greatest bridge builders of the time, the English engineer, Robert Stephenson, wrote of his doubts that a suspension bridge would ever survive the vibrations created by the movement of a heavy railroad train. In the United States, the foremost proponents of the suspension bridge were Charles Ellet, Jr., and John A. Roebling. Together with the Canadian engineers Samuel Keefer, and Edward Serrell, they convinced the railroad developers at Niagara that spanning the gorge with a suspension bridge was practical. Each eventually had the opportunity to do so, although Roebling's bridge was the only railroad-carrying structure. (24)
Charles Ellet completed the first of two suspension bridges at the Whirlpool site, the location of the current Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, in 1848. Ellet's construction was a pedestrian bridge with wooden towers and a seven foot wide deck, intended as a platform to facilitate construction of a more substantial railroad bridge. Before the railroad bridge could be completed, Ellet ran afoul of the bridge company that hired him in a dispute over bridge tolls. (25)
To replace Ellet, the bridge company hired John A. Roebling, who undertook one of the most ambitious bridge construction projects attempted at that time. In Roebling's opinion, the key to success was to build a deck that was heavy enough, and stiff enough to counteract movement caused by wind or vibration. His opinion was borne out in February 1855 when an engine weighing twenty-eight tons and pushing twenty-eight double-loaded cars crossed with "no vibrations whatever." Roebling's span, according to historian David McCullough, "was nearly twice that of Stephenson's Britannia Bridge and was able to carry even heavier loading, and yet it had taken only one-sixth as much material in proportion to length." (26)
Roebling's railroad bridge was a double-deck structure with a pedestrian and carriage deck below a railroad deck leased by the Grand Trunk Railway. The two decks were bound together as a reinforced wooden tube to give the bridge the weight and stiffness that Roebling required. Pedestrians and carriage passengers entered the bridge between two massive masonry towers that supported four 10" iron cables from which the decks were suspended. Roebling described the masonry on the New York end of the bridge:
'The base of the tower work at the level of the lower floor is 60 X 20 ft., pierced by an arch of 19 ft. wide, which forms the entrance to the lower bridge. Each of the four towers is 15 ft. square at the base, 60 ft. high above the arch, and 8 ft. square at the top. ..."
He went on to say that the base and towers on the New York side weighed 3,000 tons, and that the superstructure weighed an additional 1,000 tons. (27) Newspaper references at the time the bridge opened specified that the towers on the United States side were 88 feet above ground level. (28)
Roebling's bridge was the only Niagara River suspension bridge capable of carrying railroad trains, an essential point of several stories. (29) Ann Maria Weem's crossing described above was obviously on a railroad train, so she must have entered Canada on Roebling's bridge. So did Joe Bailey. The sights and sounds described in the account of Bailey's crossing would not have been possible from Lewiston. The Lewiston bridge below the Niagara Escarpment, built by Edward Serrell in 1851, was several hundred feet lower in elevation than, and over four miles downriver (including several twists and turns in the steep gorge) from, Niagara Falls. This evidence further supports our assertion that those crossing via train at "suspension bridge" did so over Roebling's structure in what is now Niagara Falls, New York.
That leaves the question of what masonry remnants at the New York end of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge are associated with Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Roebling's bridge required extensive repairs over its lifetime, and it was eventually replaced by the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge which is still in use. Did the repairs and replacement leave any remnants of the bridge that Tubman and others crossed upon? Was any of the masonry at the New York end of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge (See Figure 1) previously part of the approach to the Roebling suspension bridge or the foundation of its towers? Moreover, do any remains exist on the Ontario side?
In 1877, after over twenty years of use by increasingly heavy locomotives and trains, the anchorages for the bridge needed repair. The bridge company hired the noted civil engineer Leffert L. Buck to repair and reinforce them. Buck returned in 1886 to replace the original masonry towers with iron ones. With that change, wrote Buck, all that remained of the original bridge was "the cables, saddles, suspenders and anchorages." (30) As of 1886, from Buck's testimony we can deduce that the anchorages of the original bridge were still in use.
Even with Buck's improvements, by the end of the nineteenth century the increased size and weight of steam locomotives made Roebling's suspension bridge obsolete and the bridge company decided to replace it with a wider steel arch structure. The new bridge was constructed by encasing the suspension bridge, with the new decks put in under, and around it while the suspension bridge was still in place. The steel supporting arch for the new bridge was built by suspending the ends of the arch from traveling gantries that rode on the suspension bridge. Once the work on the new bridge was finished, the suspension bridge was removed. The new Whirlpool Rapids Bridge was opened in 1897. (31)
Photographs in the Local History Collection at the Niagara Falls, New York, Public Library and in The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission's archives dramatically illustrate the process used to construct the new steel arch bridge. (See Figures 2-5) In particular they show that without a doubt the Roebling suspension bridge was at exactly the same location as the new bridge. They also show the large masonry structure that was part of the anchorage for the cables that supported Roebling's suspension bridge. It was also part of the approach to the suspension bridge's railroad deck, and was clearly left in place as the approach to the new bridge. (32) Further proof that this structure was part of Roebling's bridge is the iron railing shown in Figure 4. The railing in the photograph is identical to that shown in a catalog drawing attached to Roebling's order for the fencing material. (33)
Washington Roebling, the bridge builder's son, wrote that after the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge was completed, Leffert Buck "removed the whole of the once famous Niagara Susp. Bridge, not a vestige of which remains today." Donald Sayenga corrects the younger Roebling, commenting that a "considerable portion of the stone abutment on the New York side remains in place." Available evidence confirms Sayenga's claim. (34)
To confirm Sayenga's assertion we can examine photographic evidence, historical maps, and employ some simple trigonometry. Roebling's early plans called for the towers on the U.S. side to be set back 50 feet from the edge of the gorge. (35) The towers stood 88 feet above ground level. Photographs of the cables leading from the anchorage to the top of the tower, and drawings of the anchorage as it was reinforced in 1877 show the cable rising at an angle of 17 degrees. Using these measurements to calculate the distance from the center of the base of the tower to the rear of the anchorage, assuming that the towers were set back as the early plans envisioned, gives a distance of just over 287 feet, or 337 feet from the edge of the gorge. (See Figure 6, below) An 1857 map shows the distance from the tower to the rear of the anchorage to be 273 feet, or 323 feet from the edge of the gorge. (36)
An 1893 Hopkins Atlas of Niagara Falls, and a 1914 Sanborn map show the suspension bridge anchorage as a rectangle of approximately 150 feet x 60 feet. (37) The east end, on Spring (now Whirlpool) Street is approximately 300 feet back from the edge of the gorge. Unfortunately, neither map shows the exact location of the towers. We know from Buck's report that approximately 15 feet was added to the back of the anchorage when it was reinforced in 1877. That puts the remaining masonry within the footprint shown on the two atlases, and discrepancies could be accounted for by changes in the location of the edge of the gorge caused by construction. Therefore, it is almost certain that the masonry is a remnant of Roebling's bridge, and is associated with the Underground Railroad in general, and with Harriet Tubman. The 1914 Sanborn map has been updated through October 1953, and shows that little, if any change was made to the anchorage through the middle of the twentieth century. Nor has any occurred since 1953.
At the Canadian end of the bridge the towers were only 78 feet high. (38) A photograph of the bridge shows that the cables rise from the Canadian anchorage at an angle of 18 degrees. (39) Using the same calculation shown in Figure 6 predicts that the rear of the Canadian anchorage should be 240 feet from the Canadian towers. The J. H. French map of 1857 shows the back edge of the Canadian anchorage approximately 270 feet back of the towers, but as the Canadian anchorage is on the slope of a hill, the actual end of the structure is not as distinct as on the American side. The actual anchorage is clearly within the footprint defined by the retaining walls shown on the 1857 map. There is every reason to believe that the retaining wall on the Canadian side, although refaced, was also in place at the time of Tubman's crossings. Therefore, it is also an Underground Railroad artifact. (40)
Finally, what can we say of the masonry structure that remains on the Whirlpool site just south of the now abandoned Michigan Central Railroad steel arch bridge (built in 1925) adjacent to the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge? Figure 8 shows a similar structure at the New York end of an earlier Michigan Central bridge, built in 1883. (See Figure 7 and Figure 8 below) We believe that the remaining piece of masonry is the pier that supported that bridge at its American end. In the gorge near the edge of the river directly below the pier are additional masonry remains. Their position coincides with the foundation for the steel tower that appears in Figure 7 directly under the first railroad car behind the locomotive and tender. This is additional evidence that the pier is associated with the Michigan Central bridge. (41) The remains from the Michigan Central cantilever bridge are not in line with the right of way of Roebling's bridge, so they have no Underground Railroad association.
The Bridges at Lewiston and at the Falls
Local tradition has often identified bridges at Lewiston, New York and a site closer to the Falls as the location for Underground Railroad crossings. Suspension bridges did indeed cross the Niagara River at those two other points in the nineteenth century. Two bridges were built below the Niagara Escarpment between Lewiston and Queenston, Ontario. One bridge built by Edward Serrell stood from 1851 to 1864, and one built by Richard S. Buck carried traffic between 1899 and 1962. Two other suspension bridges provided crossings at the Falls near the present Rainbow Bridge. The one by Samuel Keefer stood from 1869 to 1889, and one by the Rochester Bridge and Iron Works from 1889 to 1898. (42) Did any of these bridges figure in the documented accounts of freedom crossings?
Lewiston was certainly a point of departure for Canada for freedom seekers. For example, in 1853 John Henry Hill crossed the border at Lewiston on his way to Toronto. However, in a letter to William Still describing his crossing, Hill made it clear that he made his way to Toronto by boat, not via Edward Serrell's suspension bridge. (43) Serrell's bridge at Lewiston, completed in 1851. was destroyed in a winter gale just thirteen years later in 1864. (44) It is possible that Underground Railroad conductors, including Harriet Tubman, could have used the bridge, or they could have employed Ellet's bridge at the Whirlpool, which was gone by 1854. Harriet Tubman may have used either of them. However, any of her crossings over these bridges are ones for which we have no surviving documentation.
Buck's bridge between Lewiston and Queenston was built long alter the Underground Railroad ceased to operate, so we can dismiss it as being associated with Harriet Tubman or any of the other conductors.
Other suspension bridges were built south of the Whirlpool near the present Rainbow Bridge, known in the nineteenth century as Falls View. The first, designed by Canadian engineer Samuel Keefer, was completed in 1869. It was widened in 1888, then promptly destroyed in a gale and was replaced immediately. The Honeymoon Bridge, also known as the Falls View Bridge or Upper Steel Arch Bridge, replaced the last of these suspension bridges in 1898. (45) All of these suspension bridges were built after the Civil War and therefore can have no Underground Railroad associations.
No single town or city on the Niagara River border can claim to be the Underground Railroad crossing point to Canada. Even a cursory review of published nineteenth century accounts shows that Buffalo, Lewiston, Niagara Falls, and others were crossing points. The Underground Railroad was a network. Much like the modem internet, if one route was blocked or impeded, alternative routes existed to allow the system to function. Our tasks have been to confirm the existence of one particular route, to associate it with particular individuals, and to identify and verify physical remains associated with a particular crossing point. The key questions are which structure constitutes the "Suspension Bridge" mentioned in several accounts of Harriet Turban's crossings into Canada. Moreover, can we establish that anything remains of that bridge. We have demonstrated from reliable, published refugee accounts that Harriet Tubman and other conductors definitely crossed John A. Roebling's Railroad Suspension Bridge near the Whirlpool in the Niagara River.
Photographic and published narrative evidence proves that Roebling's bridge followed the same right of way as the present Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. Photographs and engineer's records further prove that the massive masonry structure on the American side was a part of Roebliug's bridge. Moreover, maps, and calculations based on the Roebling bridge's dimensions confirm that conclusion.
Our conclusions have sparked some controversy and discussion. What we had thought was a simple matter of historians serving the greater public good had turned into political warfare soon after we presented our "white paper" to the City of Niagara Falls and Niagara University in April 2009. That's when things got interesting. Historical research and inquiry got lost in a dispute involving patronage politics, political priorities and local pride. In 2006 the Lewiston Historical Society had proposed a "Freedom Crossing" monument on its waterfront to commemorate the hamlet's role in the Underground Railroad, with Harriet Tubman as the statue's centerpiece. The only problem was that there is no clear evidence that Tubman actually crossed at Lewiston. The Niagara Falls City Council quickly passed a unanimous resolution claiming Tubman's legacy as the city's own. The concentration of African American citizens in Niagara Falls, in contrast with the almost exclusively white citizenry of Lewiston, added a racial dynamic to these politics of memory. By June 2007 a meeting of key players from the two communities, held at Niagara University, brokered a compromise that allowed the Lewiston monument to move forward, but without a depiction of Harriet Tubman, It would be based upon Margaret Goff Clark's 1969 children's novel, Freedom Crossing. The tensions from that controversy reemerged with the presentation of our report.
Somehow the local tabloid newspaper, the Niagara Palis Reporter, obtained a copy of our white paper. They discovered a typographical error in our work: we had written that the Lewiston suspension bridge collapsed in 1854, not 1864. It was an inadvertent mistake taken from an otherwise reliable secondary source that we used in constructing the logic of our initial argument: if the Lewiston bridge had collapsed in 1854, Tubman would not have been able to use it. But since it stood until 1864, she might have crossed at Lewiston with runaway slaves, the Reporter gleefully proclaimed. Indeed, she might have, although as the report showed, the documented accounts we had at the time showed that her crossings were by railroad, and that the Falls were visible from the bridge, two conditions not met by the bridge at Lewiston.
Nevertheless, we admitted and corrected our mistake. In subsequent research we have located additional evidence proving that multiple conductors and refugees used the Roebling Suspension Bridge to reach freedom. The totality of our evidence in that original report failed to sway our detractors, however, as the Reporter ran a series of stories attempting to discredit the Harriet Tubman connection, even plastering its cover with a picture of Tubman and the query, "Was She Ever Here?" (46) Curiously, the critique appeared five months after we presented our report, but three weeks before the Lewiston monument's dedication.
The critique stemmed from two strands of contention, patronage politics and historical methodology. The Reporter, long an opponent of incumbent mayors and especially current Mayor Paul Dyster, attacked the arrangement between the city and New York State Parks which seconded Parks employee Kevin Cottrell to the city for work on the North Star Project, a combination of efforts to revitalize a predominantly African American section of the city. The centerpiece of this revitalization effort would be an Underground Railroad interpretive center, located in a late-nineteenth century building across the road from the extant anchorage of the Roebling Suspension Bridge, funded by millions of city, state and federal dollars. The feud grew nasty, with accusations of intimidation tactics and sexual and racial slurs. (47)
The Reporter also attacked our historical methodology, beginning with our use of Tubman's dictated autobiography, declaring that Sarah Bradford's Scenes of the Life of Harriet Tubman "failed to meet even the standards of the day insofar as historical veracity is concerned." Bradford's biography is not perfect, but in uncovering voices otherwise silent in the historical record, it is worth considering. The fact that we included additional evidence that corroborated Bradford's account mattered little to the Reporter. After criticizing Tubman--"she couldn't read or write at all"--the newspaper insisted that because other published biographies of Tubman failed to specifically mention Tubman's crossing Suspension Bridge, it could not have happened. Such criticisms go against the most basic tenet of historical research, that new evidence and revised interpretations change what we know of the past.
The contested public history of Harriet Tubman, Suspension Bridge, and the Underground Railroad demonstrates how evidence and argument can be ignored by people who bring preconceived notions of the past, and especially African American history, to the debate or who view such history through the lens of local politics. The Reporter declared that our research was without basis, and that to prove the Tubman connection to Niagara Falls, to prove this history, "they'll come up with evidence galore." (48) While we sought to discover the veracity of a small part of Underground Railroad history, we ended up learning far more about the contentious nature of African American history. Lewiston erected a beautiful $320,000 monument whose design is taken from a work of historical fiction, while Niagara Falls makes excruciatingly slow progress in commemorating its verifiable history.
The Suspension Bridge remains are unprepossessing, to be sure, and are in a state of some decay. Nevertheless, they have a well-documented connection to the Underground Railroad. Such a monument to Western New York and Southern Ontario's participation in that struggle for freedom is something of which both communities should be proud. It is a monument to interracial and international cooperation in extending the bounds of liberty and opportunity. With greater care and attention for what it is, perhaps it might in time inspire the sort of awe that the nineteenth century African American poet, author, and abolitionist, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper felt when she rhapsodized about freedom as she compared it to Niagara Falls in 1856: "Niagara--the great, the glorious Niagara--may hush your spirit with its ceaseless thunder; it may charm you with its robe of crested spray and rainbow crown; but the land of Freedom was a lesson of deeper significance than foaming waves or towering mounts." (49)
(1) William Siener is the former Executive Director of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.
(2) Thomas Chambers is chair and associate professor of history at Niagara University.
(3) Milton C. Sernett, North Star Country: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2002). 323, n. 89. In the main text of his book, Sernett indicates that Tubman crossed "the famous suspension bridge" at Niagara Falls. "which was located near the site of the present-day Whirlpool Bridge" (190-191).
(4) Theodora Vinal, Niagara Portage. from Past to Present (Buffalo, N.Y.: Henry Stewart, Inc., Publishers, 1948), 38-50, 53-54, 57-65.
(5) Vinal, Niagara Portage, 67;--. Corporations of Niagara Falls and Niagara City. N. Y. & Clifton. C W. Syracuse, N.Y. J.H. French, 1857 (hereafter cited as French Map, 1857).
(6) See, for example "Railroads. New York Central Railroad From Albany." New York Times. February 23, 1855.
(7) Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America. 18.55-185. February 11. 1856, p. 41 in American Memory Project. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation. U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html (last accessed 14 December 2011).
(8) William Still. The Underground Railroad, A Record of Facts. Authentic Narratives, Letters. &C. (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1871), 185, Project Gutenberg edition http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15263/15263-h/15263-h.htm#P_493 (last accessed 14 December 2011)., consulted at http://fliiby.com/file/202739/eemv0iz.html. 298 (last accessed 14 December 2011).
(9) Still. Underground Railroad, 251.
(10) Vinal. Niagara Portage, 40.
(11) Still, Underground Railroad, 252.
(12) Still, Underground Railroad, 471.
(13) Still, Underground Railroad, 615. Still includes several other narratives in which Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge figure prominently. John Henry Hill wrote Still from Toronto on December 29, 1853 to report that his wife and children had arrived there safely, although she lost all of her money en route. She telegraphed him from Niagara Falls, where he went to meet her to bring her to Toronto. Thomas F. Page also stopped in Niagara Falls to write to Still on October 6, 1858. Page had escaped enslavement from Norfolk with Still's help, and settled in Boston. A year or so afterward he traveled to the Canadian provinces to see if better opportunities might be available for him there. During his travels he met a number of Underground Railroad operatives on both sides of the border, but concluded that he did not like Upper or Lower Canada, or New Brunswick. Mary Epps wrote Still from Toronto in December 1853 saying that she and two traveling companions had arrived "at Suspension Bridge." where they separated before continuing to Toronto. Jacob Blockson wrote his wife from St. Catharines, Canada West in 1858 advising her that "you can come to suspension bridge and from there to St. Catharines" (Still. Underground Railroad, 185, 308, 71, 451).
(14) Semett. Harriet Tubman: Myth. Memory, and History (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 2007); Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004); Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004); Jean M. Humez, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003). The narrative below represents the consensus of these works.
(15) Wilber Siebert, Interview with Harriet Tubman, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1897, Siebert Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
(16) Sarah H. Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (Auburn, New York: W.J. Moses, 1869), 33; Bradford, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (New York: Citadel Press, 1989; Reprint of 1886 2d. ed., orig. pub. 1869), 47-48, 50-51. The second edition contains significant content revisions.
(17) Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. 33-34.
(18) Bradford, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. 50.
(19) W.E. Abbott to Maria G Porter. November 29. 1856. Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society Records, William L. Clements Library. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
(20) Franklin B. Sanborn. "Harriet Tubman," Conunonwealth, July 17, 1863.
(21) Mary Ellen Snodgrass. "Harriet Ross Tubman" entry in The Underground Railroad: An Encyclopedia of People. Places, and Operations (Armonk, New York: Sharpe Reference, 2008), Vol. II: 540.
(23) David McCullough, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. (2nd ed.; New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. 2001), 71-72.
(24) Ibid., 72-73, 75-79. On the belief that suspension bridges were unreliable for railroad traffic, a belief that persisted even after Roebling's success at Niagara, see Henry Petroski, Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 31-32, 78, 144, 155).
(25) Paul E. Lewis, Niagara's Gorge Bridges. Marvels of Engineering (St. Catharines. ON: Looking Back Press, 2009), 10, 14-15; George A. Seibel. Bridges Over the Niagara Gorge: Rainbow Bridge 50 Years 1941-1991 (Niagara Falls, ON: Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, 1991), 5-12; Donald Sayenga. Ellet and Roebling: The Amazing Tale of Friendship and Rivalry between Two of America's Greatest Engineers (York, PA: The American Canal and Transportation Center, 1983), 31-32.
(26) McCullough, The Great Bridge, 75-80; Lewis, Niagara's Gorge Bridges, 18, 20.
(27) John A. Roebling, Final Report of John A. Roebling. Civil Engineer, to the Presidents and Directors of the Niagara Falls Suspension and Niagara Falls International Bridge Companies. May I, 1855 (Rochester. NY: Lee, Mann & Co.. 1855), 12-13, 20-21, 24, 44. Consulted at Digital Bridges. bridges.lib.lehigh.edu (last accessed 14 December 2011); Seibel, Bridges Over the Niagara Gorge, 31.
(28) "Niagara Suspension Bridge." New York Times. March 12, 1855; Lewis, Niagara's Gorge Bridges. 30-41.
(29) David McCullough, The Great Bridge, 71-72.
(30) Leffert L. Buck. "Report of the Construction of the Steel Arch Bridge. Replacing the Niagara Railway Suspension Bridge", reprinted from Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 40 (1899); 127-131: "Renewal of Niagara Suspension Bridge." Scientific American, July 16, 1881; Lewis, Niagara's Gorge Bridges, 20, 22. The essential pails of a suspension bridge include the towers at each end of the bridge over which cables are carried on saddles. The saddles on the tops of the towers, equipped with rollers to allow the cables to move under the stress of shifting loads. After passing over the saddles, the cables are firmly attached to an anchorage to prevent the weight of the bridge and its load from collapsing the towers inward. Anchorages may be massive masonry structures within excavations, or natural rock or bedrock formations. Vertical suspenders hung from the cables Support the weight of the decks that carry traffic.
(31) Buck. "Report of the Construction of the Steel Arch Badge." 141 -149; Lewis, Niagara 's Gorge Bridges, 30-41; Seibel, Bridges Over the Niagara Gorge, 41-53; Thomas E. Leary and Elizabeth C. Sholes, eds. Industrial Crossroads: Buffalo and the Niagara Frontier: A Guidebook for the Society for Industrial Archeology 21" Annual Conference. June 4-8. 1992. Unpublished manuscript, 1992, 48.
(32) We are indebted to Maureen Fennie of the Local History Collection at the Niagara Falls Public Library, which has an extensive collection of photographs documenting the eonsruction of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, and archivist. Paul Lewis, also graciously made copies of several key images available for this article from the Commission's extensive collection "
(33) Agreement re fencing for anchorage. Roebling Collection, Institute Archives and Special Collections. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Box 37, folder 6.
(34) Donald Sayenga, ed. Washington Roebling's Father A Memoir of John A. Roebling (Region, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers. 2009), 155, 155 n. 32.
(35) Undated Drawing of Proposed Entrance to Niagara Bridge signed "JAR". Roebling Collection. Institute Archives and Special Collections, Renuselaer Polytechnic Institute, Box 37. Folder 5.
(36) French Map. 1857.
(37) Atlas of the Vicinities of the Cities of Niagara Falls and Buffalo. New York (Philadelphia: Griffith M. Hopkins, 1893); Sanborn Map Company. Insurance Maps of Niagara Falls, New York, 1914, (New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1915).
(38) "Niagara Suspension Bridge,"' New York Times. March 12, 1855.
(39) Scibel. Bridges Over ihe Niagara Gorge, 46.
(40) French Map, 1857.
(41) Leary and Sholes reach the same conclusion in Industrial Crossroads, 47.
(42) Lewis. Niagara's (iorge Bridges. 57-66, 109-120; Seibel. Bridges Over the Niagara Gorge, 87-134; Leary and Sholes, Industrial Crossroads, 47.
(43) Still. Underground Railroad, 181.
(44) Lewis, Niagara s Gorge Bridges, 109.
(45) Lewis, Niagara's Gorge Bridges, 58-61, 65-80.
(46) Niagara Falls Reporter, September 29. 2009 cover, and "Tubman's Link to Niagara Falls Easy to Exploit, Difficult to Prove." See also these Reporter articles Xottrelt vs. Mark Twain on History," October 6, 2009; "Freedom Crossing Monument Readied for Wednesday Dedication in Lewiston," October 13, 2009. For background on the controversy, see "Historical Common Ground." Buffalo News, October 15, 2009.
(47) "Cottrell Complains to Police of Strong-Arm Tactics." Niagara Gazette, November 6, 2009; "It's Time for Kevin Cottrell to Go: Used racial slur to describe county Legislator Kimble," Niagara Falls Reporter, November 10, 2009.
(48) "Freedom Crossing Monument Readied for Wednesday Dedication in Lewiston." Niagara Falls Reporter, October 13, 2009.
(49) Still, Underground Railroad, 679.
William H. Siener (1) Thomas A. Chambers (2)
Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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|Author:||Siener, William H.; Chambers, Thomas A.|
|Publication:||Afro-Americans in New York Life and History|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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