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By Mike Hudson

(Publisher’s note: This is the second of a three-part investigative series by Niagara Falls Reporter Editor in Chief Mike Hudson examining spurious claims that the city was a major hub of the Underground Railroad in the years prior to the Civil War, claims that are now being used to justify the spending of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars celebrating a history that never happened.)

History is a funny thing.

Library shelves are filled with volumes that will tell you that Thomas Jefferson messed around on his wife, that Winston Churchill was a war criminal, or that Elvis slept with his mother, and since most of the people who could have spoken definitively about the subjects are now dead, who’s to say?
Back in 2009, Kevin Cottrell — who was hired by the city to promote the idea that what is now the city of Niagara Falls played a central role in the Underground Railroad that helped thousands of former slaves escape their tormentors — repeatedly told reporters that Harriet Tubman personally led hundreds of former slaves to
Canada and freedom across a suspension bridge very near to what is now the Whirlpool Bridge in the city’s North End.

A series of articles in this newspaper showed conclusively that Cottrell was either lying or sadly misinformed, and raised serious questions concerning his motivation by exposing his involvement with a tour company he founded that profited from the absurd claim.

Historians agree that Harriet Tubman may actually have led as few as 17 people north, and that most of these traveled along a New England route hundreds of miles away from the roar of Niagara Falls.

It turned out that the story of her heroics here was rooted in a single passage from a book that was billed as her autobiography, but was actually written by a young white woman with Abolitionist sympathies long after the events it described actually took place. The book is riddled with errors, perhaps the most comical being a
solemn prayer for the soul of the late Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who happened to be very much alive when the book was published.
Cottrell’s conflict of interest in the matter was readily apparent to anyone who wanted to look at it. He founded the for-profit Motherland Connexions tour company, billed on its website as being the “originators of the Underground Railroad tour experience.”

For just $78 ($48 for children under 12), Cottrell or one of his employees will guide you on a three- hour tour dedicated to a history that never happened. The company’s website, filled with misspellings and typographical errors, describes the experience.

“Sojourn the towns and sites that played host to thousands of freedom seekers passing through Niagara Falls on what’s described as one of this countries (sic) ‘First Mulit-Cultural (sic) Humanitarian Efforts,’” the site states.

Interestingly, Cottrell’s employment by the city is never mentioned.

“As a local Historian, Preservationist, Educator and Entrepreneur, Kevin Cottrell has been lecturing both locally and nationally on the topic of the Underground
Railroad especially as it relates to Western New York, and Southern Ontario,” the profile states.

“Presently, Mr. Cottrell is Station Master (owner operator) of Motherland Connextions, a company specializing in Heritage Tourism.”

All of this would be easy to dismiss as the shenanigans of a two-bit history hustler, were it not for the fact that, aside from his $74,800-a-year salary as the city’s resident Underground Railroad “expert,” he is a principal consultant on a project that will ultimately cost Niagara Falls taxpayers millions: The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area.

The centerpiece of the heritage area, the old U.S. Customs House on Whirlpool Street, is in the midst of a $40 million renovation that backers hope will one day house a new Amtrak station, as well as the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center.

One of the oldest buildings in Niagara Falls, the Customs House was built in 1863, well after the Underground Railroad was stopped in its tracks by the outbreak of the Civil War.

But unlike the actual Underground Railroad, the city’s Underground Railroad Heritage Commission won’t be stopped. With an annual budget of $350,000 a year provided by the city, Cottrell’s commission affords him the perfect vehicle to promote and expand his private company without having to explain his business plan to any pesky bankers.

The commission’s recently released Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Management Plan, completed at an unknown cost to the city by an outside consulting firm called EDR Companies, does little to hide what is about to occur here.

The report identifies 23 sites in the city as serving “important functions during the formation and operation of the Underground Railroad.”
One of these, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, wasn’t built until 1873, a full 14 years after the Underground Railroad ceased operations. Its “important function” was apparently that “many prominent local families, both African American and European American, were associated with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.”

Another “important site” is the Emma Tanner home, located at 619 Ashland Ave. Tanner was a black Canadian woman who moved to the city in 1925. Like every other black person living in the United States at the time, she had relatives who had once been slaves.

The so-called Colt Block, at the corner of Main and Ontario streets, also had an important connection to the Underground Railroad and was named in the report.
“Leander Colt represents widespread local support for helping people to get out of slavery. Colt ‘and lady’ attended a benefit concert for George Goines in Lockport, who was raising money to buy freedom for his mother and brother,” the report states. “After Colt constructed this limestone commercial block in 1855, he rented part of the building to George Hackstaff, editor of the Niagara Herald, who had antislavery sympathies.”

That’s right, Leander Colt went to some benefit and then rented out space in a building of which he was the landlord!

The Solon Whitney home, now better known as the law offices of John Bartolomei, was also found to be very significant. Why?

“Solon Myron Napoleon Whitney, son of Parkhurst Whitney, owned the Cataract Hotel for more than 50 years with his brothers-in-law Dexter Jerauld and James Trott,” the report states. “All of them hired African Americans as waiters. Many of these waiters had born in the South and had likely escaped from slavery.”
In other words, the private home of a man who owned a hotel that hired black waiters who may or may not have “escaped from slavery” has been deemed culturally significant. All of the hotels in Niagara Falls at the time hired black waiters, and indeed, all of the places the hotels once stood — for none exist today — have been named as important sites.

The historical fraud being perpetrated on the taxpayers of a city whose guest book has been signed by luminaries such as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Nikola
Tesla, Marilyn Monroe and more kings and queens than you can shake a stick at is truly historic in its appalling proportions.

(NEXT WEEK: In Part 3 of this special Niagara Falls Reporter investigative series, we’ll see why Kevin Cottrell, Mayor Paul Dyster and City Engineer Tom DeSantis have a vested interest in phony history.)

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 1 2012