City Planner Tom DeSantis is something of a comedian. Even his job title is a joke. He's taken up space at City Hall since 1988 and called himself the "city planner" for more than two decades, as if to challenge anyone to find any evidence of planning whatsoever in Niagara Falls.
In one media account last week, it was reported that DeSantis would "love to have" a sculpture of Harriet Tubman standing outside the city's new train station and Underground Railroad Interpretive Center, the latter being a monument to a "history" you can't find in any history book.
Why Harriet Tubman?
DeSantis didn't say. But it doesn't seem to be a big stretch to honor a history that never took place with a largely mythological figure who made her living telling tall tales about herself to gullible audiences predisposed to believe anything she said.
The city of Niagara Falls, of course, didn't exist during the time of the Underground Railroad, which ceased operations in 1861 shortly after the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Ft. Sumter, S.C.. Niagara Falls would not be incorporated for another 31 years, in 1892.
But what about the land that now constitutes the city? How important was that?
Not important at all, according to the entire literature of the Underground Railroad, both national and regional, historic and contemporary. While numerous verified accounts can be found detailing the roles of Buffalo, Lockport and Lewiston in the operation of the Underground Railroad, there is but one reference anywhere to something allegedly happening in what is now the city of Niagara Falls.
And that one reference comes from "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman," a brief narrative written by grade school teacher Sarah H. Bradford that is often referred to as Tubman's "autobiography."
In the book, Tubman claims to have gone across "a suspension bridge" into Canada somewhere around Niagara Falls. At the time, there were at least two bridges crossing the Niagara River that were called "suspension" bridges, one in Lewiston and one in what later would be called the city of Niagara Falls.
Tubman, of course, could not write an autobiography. An illiterate, she couldn't even write her own name. Bradford, the author of several children's' books, found Tubman virtually homeless in 1868, took pity, and wrote the book to raise money for Tubman's care and feeding. When it came out in 1869, "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman" was a bestseller.
The book contains numerous verifiable whoppers, including an assertion that Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, was dead, when he was very much alive, and that Tubman had led 300 former slaves to freedom. In fact, the highest number attributed to her by modern researchers is 70 and more sober estimates are 19, mostly relatives.
After the book's publication, Bradford sailed for a grand tour of Europe, Tubman bought a place in Auburn, N.Y., and later had a fanciful image of herself engraved on a U.S. postage stamp. She would be largely forgotten in Niagara Falls today were it not for the efforts of a man named Kevin Cottrell.
Cottrell was a State Parks employee who also owned a business called Motherland Connextions, that promoted fairytale, sugar coated stories of the Underground Railroad here for gullible tourists. Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster paid him nearly $75,000 a year to spew his phony pablum in an official capacity. He was employed on the condition that he would not sell his tours while being paid by the city to promote Underground Railroad "history."
Cottrell repeatedly told daily newspaper and television reporters that Tubman led 300 escaped slaves across the Whirlpool Bridge to freedom in Canada. The reporters didn't bother to check his tall tale out.
That was left to the Niagara Falls Reporter, which discovered that, of the 19 former slaves Tubman may actually have assisted, there is no proof whatsoever that a single one of them went over the old bridge at what is now the site of the Whirlpool Bridge.
Cottrell was later fired after the Reporter exposed his continued involvement with Motherland Connextions, the business based on the same line of bull he was being paid by the city to promote.
Dressed in antebellum garb, Cottrell continues to capitalize on the slavery racket, Harriet Tubman, and their mythological relationship to Niagara Falls.
Perusing the vast amount of literature available on the Underground Railroad, one finds scant mention of Niagara Falls. The relatively calm waters of Lewiston and Buffalo were far more suitable to small boat crossings than the roiling cascade and rapids presented in what now constitutes the city.
But that doesn't stop the mythmakers, Cottrell and Dyster and DeSantis, from using taxpayer's money to shove their fake history down your throat.
If you want to know the real story, take a trip to the Earl Brydges Library over on Main Street. They've got all the books.
You might start with Milton Sernett's "Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory and History," which is as scholarly a study as you'll find, published by Duke University, 424 pages and mentions Niagara Falls not at all.
And then you might want to read "Bound For The Promised Land: Portrait of an American Hero " by Kate Clifford Larsson. She mentioned Niagara Falls once in her 432 page opus, but has since been hired by the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission and has since revised her position.
How much they paid her, we don't know.
The real deal is Tubman's "autobiography," still available at a cheap price on Amazon. Illiterate and factually incorrect, it's laugh out loud material for the modern reader.
Tom DeSantis wants a statue of her on Whirlpool Street. To pretty up his broken down train station in the brokenest down part of town.
To give it some legitimacy. From a guy who thinks it's legit to put a picture window on a pre Civil War Federalist structure as thought it was a house built for the Brady Bunch.
But you all accept it and you all live with it.
And that's the real story.