Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, and the Bridges at Niagara Falls

Article excerpt

This study began in the winter of 2008, when a city official in Niagara Falls, New York asked if we could verify whether anything remained of the bridge that Harriet Tubman used to escort refugees from slavery in the United States to freedom in Canada. There is no doubt that in the course of rescuing enslaved African Americans before the Civil War and moving them safely to Canada, Harriet Tubman crossed the Niagara River by the Suspension Bridge. The issue is complicated by the fact that six historic suspension bridges have spanned the Niagara River at three different points at one time or another. Such bridges crossed the river just north of the Falls, just south of the Niagara River Whirlpool, and below the Niagara Escarpment in Lewiston, New York. Which ones were used by Tubman?

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. …