Is the decision by the city’s Underground Railroad Commission to broaden the scope of what was to have been the Underground Railroad interpretive center at the Whirlpool Street train station a tacit admission that Niagara Falls has little if any Underground Railroad history of its own to begin with?
Niagara Falls didn’t exist as a municipality until March 1897, more than 34 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, effectively freeing the slaves. And while Lockport, Pekin, Youngstown and especially Lewiston have well documented associations with the Underground Railroad, exhaustive efforts over the past few years have failed to turn up anything similar in the city.
The commission hired two Niagara University academics to produce the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Management Plan, an otherwise unremarkable bureaucratic document, brimming with the sort of demographic, geographical and historical detail that can be easily found elsewhere.
Those seeking to learn anything from the report about actual activity by the Underground Railroad on land that would one day long afterward become the city of Niagara Falls should not be daunted by its great length, since the first 50 or so pages deal exclusively with things having nothing to do with the Underground Railroad.
When the determined reader finally gets to the parts that do have to do with the Underground Railroad, he is struck by the vagueness of the language used.
“Almost certainly,” “There can be little doubt,” “It’s likely that,” “Almost all,” “This suggests,” “Reputedly” and “Perhaps as many as” and other modifiers preface nearly every declarative sentence.
In sum, the study failed to come up with a single unequivocal site to link to Underground Railroad activity, or the name of a single resident of the area that would later become the city of Niagara Falls who could be associated with the clandestine organization.
While the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church in Buffalo, the First Presbyterian Church in Lewiston, the Thomas Root House in Pekin, the Abijah Moss House in Lockport and the Murphy Orchards Farm in tiny Burt all have proven associations with the Underground Railroad, Niagara Falls is bereft of any such location.
In fact, the sole place in the city that may have a tenuous connection to the Underground Railroad is the site of the former Suspension Bridge, a few hundred yards from the present day Whirlpool Bridge.
According to the book “Scenes From the Life of Harriet Tubman,” which was passed off as the illiterate Tubman’s autobiography but was actual-ly written by a children’s book author named Sarah Hopkins Bradford, Tubman once passed through what in now the city’s North End as a passenger on a train bound for Canada.
Tubman, known as the “Moses of Her People” based largely on the assertions in Bradford’s book, was associated with the Underground Rail-road and, in all, is said to have led between 19 and 70 escaping slaves from her home state of Maryland mostly up the East Coast and through Boston to freedom in Canada.
Given the thinness of the evidence linking the present day Niagara Falls to the activities of the Underground Railroad, it is unsurprising that the Underground Railroad Commission would opt to focus its attention to later developments that would one day lead to the high percentage of African American residents here.