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ANALYSIS By Mike Hudson

Kevin Cottrell -- who earns $74,800 a year working for the city to promote a private business he founded that purports to speak on the Underground Railroad in the history of Western New York -- led two representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation around by the nose last week attempting to convince them that Harriet Tubman crossed the Niagara River on a suspension bridge located near the site of today's Whirlpool Bridge.

"Harriet Tubman did indeed come through Niagara Falls on her way to (St. Catharines, Ont.). Tubman was an icon, and she certainly crossed (the suspension) bridge," Cottrell told a reporter. "There's a tremendous void in the city of Niagara Falls when it comes to historical issues perceived to be black, but everybody has a connection to this story."

The problem with Cottrell's story is not "an issue perceived to be black," but an issue of fact vs. fiction.

In a February 2009 paper prepared on behalf of the city by Niagara University historians William H. Seiner and Thomas A. Chambers, the authors state with certainty that a suspension bridge over the river in Lewiston was destroyed in 1854, meaning that the suspension bridge Tubman crossed in 1856 or 1857 had to be the one in what is now Niagara Falls.

But Seiner and Chambers got the date of the Lewiston bridge collapse wrong.

In "The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812," published in 1869, author Benjamin J. Lossing recounts the event.

"We passed through Lewiston (a village of about one thousand souls, very pleasantly situated) without halting, and crossed the Niagara River to Queenston, over the suspension bridge, a magnificent structure, with a roadway eight hundred and fifty feet in length, twenty feet in width, and sixty feet above the water ..." Lossing wrote.

"This bridge was destroyed by a gale of wind at the close of 1863. Fortunately no life was lost. The Lockport Journal relates the following incident in connection with its destruction: 'During the day upon which the Lewiston bridge was carried off by the wind, a boy, whose parents reside in Canada, but is at work in Lewiston, went over to Canada on a short visit to his parents. Just before the bridge went down, the boy proposed starting for his place of business in Lewiston. His father accompanied him. As they reached the bridge it was swaying to and fro over the boiling waters far beneath. The boy hesitated a moment, but, as this motion of the bridge was not unusual, he stepped upon it, his father still with him, and proceeded to cross. They both went to about the middle, when the rapid and unusual motion of the bridge greatly increased their fear. The father turned about, and the boy went on, both running at their fastest speed for the opposite shore. They had just time to reach the shore on each side before the structure was borne away.'"

The boy's story is also recounted in J.B. Mansfield's monumental 1899 opus, "Great Lakes Maritime History."

In "The Niagara Book," by William Dean Howells, Mark Twain and Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and published in 1901, the authors give the exact date of the disaster.

"There was a vast amount of ice passing down the Niagara River in the winter of 1863-1864, and the men in charge of the old Lewiston Suspension Bridge unfastened the guys, thinking the ice might carry them away. After the ice flow had passed, they forgot to refasten them, and a high wind wrecked the bridge on February 1, 1864," they wrote.

And in John Edbauer's 1920 "New Guide and Key to Niagara Falls," the author states, "The present bridge is the second to span the river at this point. The first bridge was opened to traffic in 1850 and was blown down by a hurricane in 1864. The present structure was opened to the public in July, 1899."

Most surprisingly of all, Seiner and Chambers ignored a previous Niagara University publication -- the catalog for the Charles Rand Penney collection of Niagara-related prints and photographs.

The notation for Print 219 in the collection reads, "A print of the first Queenston-Lewiston Bridge, which stood from March 20, 1851 until February 1, 1864."

All of these accounts substantiate the research of bridge historian David Denenberg, who wrote of the disaster.

"Wrecked by wind February 1, 1864. Stay cables beneath the bridge had been disconnected to avoid damage from rising ice. Portions of the cables and deck remained, in a derelict state, as late as 1895," Denenberg wrote.

"The February 3, 1864 edition of Niagara Falls Gazette describes the wind event: 'Partial Destruction Of The Lewiston Suspension Bridge -- A portion of the flooring and other wood-work of the Lewiston Suspension Bridge was blown down during the gale Monday forenoon. It seems that the long guys had been cut during the late ice jam to prevent injury to the structure and thus its strength to withstand a gale was much weakened.'"

Why Seiner and Chambers chose to ignore such a substantial body of contemporary accounts and state unequivocally that the Lewiston suspension bridge had been destroyed a decade earlier than it actually was in order to provide "proof" that Harriet Tubman had indeed been in what is now Niagara Falls is anybody's guess.

In addition to the $74,800 the city is paying Cottrell, Mayor Paul Dyster has appointed a commission -- with a budget of $350,000 annually -- to promote the make-believe story, and a substantial portion of the $40 million needed to restore the city's Old Customs House will be spent on creating an "interpretive center" to con tourists into believing it as well.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com October 6 2009