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ANALYSIS By Mike Hudson

Kevin Cottrell not only sucks up a $118,904 city wage and benefit package, he has nearly unfettered access to the $350,000 set aside for Mayor Paul Dyster's Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Commission, a phantom organization that is not required to report to the public or anyone else how it spends its budget.

What Cottrell actually does to earn this money is anyone's guess. Some say his position with the city constitutes a "no-show" job, while others contend he uses his position to promote Motherland Connextions, a business he founded and later signed over to his sister to sell tours alleging a link between the city and the Underground Railroad of the pre-Civil War era.

That link is almost entirely fictional. While Lewiston, Lockport and other Niagara County locations can claim documented historical connections to the Underground Railroad, Niagara Falls -- the falls themselves, not the city -- have only one lone reference on which to base any ties.

And that lone reference comes from a highly dubious source.

That source, the 132-page "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman," passed itself off as an autobiography but was actually written by a small-town grade-school teacher and Abolitionist named Sarah Bradford. She had befriended the illiterate Tubman, who was destitute and needed money in 1869.

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 historians is 19, mostly relatives.

That didn't stop Cottrell from convincing gullible reporters from the Niagara Gazette that Tubman had not only rescued 300 former slaves, but that she led each and every one of them to Niagara Falls, where she took them to safety in Canada over the old Suspension Bridge.

There were a couple problems with Cottrell's colorful yarn, most notably the fact that the city of Niagara Falls didn't even exist until 1897, nearly 40 years after the Underground Railroad ceased operation. There was also the thorny question of the number of former slaves aided by Tubman. Most of those she rescued -- all from Maryland -- were taken up the East Coast, through Philadelphia and Boston. That single reference to the falls of Niagara contained in Bradford's fanciful book refers to Tubman, on a single occasion, crossing the Niagara River while riding on a train most likely coming from Rochester.

Niagara Falls is a famous place that has been visited and written about by presidents and kings for hundreds of years. Does a possibly fraudulent legend that a woman may have passed through, without stopping, on a single occasion really merit the $469,000 that Cottrell and his commission are costing the city each and every year?

State Sen. George Maziarz says no.

"This is an outrage and a prime example of why the city is in the shape it's in," said Maziarz. "In my view, this is outright fraud."

For his part, Mayor Paul Dyster plans on making Cottrell's fairy tale into the centerpiece of an Underground Railroad museum he's proposed for the $40 million train station he wants to build at the Old Customs House on Whirlpool Street.

Presumably, the museum will be packed to the rafters with Underground Railroad memorabilia brought in from other parts of the country, because there isn't any here.

What, exactly, does Kevin Cottrell do for his $118,904 salary? No one seems to know and few even seem to be asking. What, exactly, has the Underground Railroad Heritage Commission he oversees done with the $350,000 check it received from City Controller Maria Brown on July 2 of last year?

No one seems to know that either.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 8, 2011