Western New York Heritage

Crossing to Freedom: Harriet Tubman and John A. Roebling's Suspension Bridge

A view of John A. Roebling’s suspension bridge, with Niagara Falls in the background, ca. 1856, from Report of the Construction of the Steel Arch Bridge, Replacing the Niagara Railway Suspension Bridge, by Leffert L. Buck.

Geography, political decisions and an international border made the Niagara Frontier the penultimate goal of hundreds of African-American freedom seekers in the middle of the nineteenth century. Slavery was legal in New York State until 1827. Even then, the children of freed slaves remained in apprenticeship until they turned 21, and slave owners could, under some circumstances, bring slaves into the state. Across the Canadian-American border in Upper Canada (now Ontario), Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe introduced an Anti-Slavery Act in 1793. Though it provided that people born into slavery remained enslaved until their deaths, the law forbade bringing new slaves into the province. All slaves who reached the province immediately became free. This provision set the stage for building the network that became known as the Underground Railroad. Crossing the Niagara River into Canada gained enslaved African-Americans their freedom. Once they “shook the lion’s paw,” a reference to the symbol of Great Britain, they were slaves no more.

Historians now recognize the major role that African-Americans played in liberating themselves and fellow their African-Americans. They headed anti-slavery organizations, organized transportation for refugees, and served as contacts between liberated individuals and family and friends left behind in the southern United States. Along with white and native allies, many in towns along the Great Lakes and Niagara River, they offered shelter and assistance to many freedom seekers who crossed the border into Canada.

Accounts of those who escaped show, without doubt, that a number of Underground Railroad “conductors” assisted their charges in crossing the border from towns all up and down the Niagara River. Among those conductors was the near legendary Harriet Tubman, popularly known as the “Moses of Her People.” Born around 1820 in Dorchester County Maryland, Tubman escaped enslavement in 1849 and, by late 1851, was relocating family members and others to St. Catharines, Canada West (now Ontario). She made North Street in St. Catharines her base of operations until 1857 or 1859. Traditionally Tubman has been credited with escorting as many as 300 individuals to freedom in nineteen trips to the southern U.S., though one account credits her with freeing “several thousand.”

Harriet Tubman, ca. 1855.  Evidence demonstrates that she transported fugitive slaves across “Suspension Bridge” to freedom in Canada. We can verify two such crossings, one in 1856 and one in 1857.  Image Source: Library of Congress

While the crossings themselves are often well documented, some of the sites associated with the Underground Railroad network along the frontier are less well-known. Careful detective work is needed to confirm Underground Railroad sites and their association with iconic figures like Harriet Tubman.   Our search began with the knowledge that Harriet Tubman, and other Underground Railroad conductors led their charges to freedom across the Niagara River by way of “the suspension bridge.” This raised the immediate question of which suspension bridge; there were six (or seven, depending on how you count them). Assuming we could determine which bridge, could we confirm that portions of it still remained?  In the end, our detective work revealed that, “hiding in plain sight” at the north end of the City of Niagara Falls, NY are the remains of not only an important Underground Railroad crossing, but one of the most remarkable engineering achievements of mid-nineteenth century America.

Spanning the Gorge

Suspension bridges crossed the Niagara River at three points during the 19th century.  Ranging from north to south, there were crossings below the Niagara Escarpment at Lewiston, near the Whirlpool Rapids and just north of the Falls themselves at a location known as “Falls View.”  The first suspension bridge to span the river was completed in 1848 by engineer Charles Ellet.  This was a single carriage deck bridge located just above the Whirlpool Rapids.  In use until about 1854, it is possible that Harriet Tubman COULD have used Ellet’s suspension bridge, but there is no corroborating evidence to show that she actually DID so.

Charles Ellet built the first suspension bridge across the Niagara in 1851. A kite-flying contest won by Homan Walsh of Niagara Falls, NY, got a kite string across the gorge, which was then used to pull a more substantial line across. The bridge featured a single carriage deck and wooden towers.  Image source: Niagara Falls, NY, Public Library.

By the mid-1850s the increase in rail transportation required a larger bridge across the river which would accommodate such traffic.  John A. Roebling, who would later design the Brooklyn Bridge, was called upon to construct such a crossing.  Roebling used Ellet’s bridge as a platform to facilitate construction of the first railroad suspension bridge in the world.  Completed in 1855, with some repairs and modifications this second suspension bridge at the Whirlpool Rapids site served as a vital international transportation route until 1897.  Roebling’s bridge featured massive stone towers at each end, which supported a double deck bridge.  Trains used the upper deck while the lower level was used by pedestrians and carriage traffic.  A huge masonry embankment served as an anchorage for the bridge cables on the New York side of the river, and provided an approach for the railroad deck.

John A. Roebling used Ellet’s bridge as a platform to facilitate construction of the first railroad suspension bridge in the world. It was completed in 1855 and served as a vital international crossing until 1897.  Image source: Tugby’s Illustrated Guide to Niagara Falls 1885, courtesy of William H. Siener collection.

Two suspension bridges were constructed upstream (south) of the Whirlpool Rapids site.  Canadian engineer Samuel Keefer’s suspension bridge opened in 1869.  In 1872 enclosed towers were added to each end of the bridge.  This structure was a narrow affair, with only one lane for carriages, but it offered a spectacular view of the Falls.  In 1888, Keefer’s bridge was replaced by a wider one, which was built by the Rochester Bridge Works.  Though it blew down in a January 1889 storm, it was replaced just four months later.  As both of these bridges post-date the Civil War, they had no Underground Railroad connection.

The northernmost crossing for suspension bridges over the Niagara River was just below the Niagara Escarpment and connected Lewiston, New York with the Canadian village of Queenston.  The first suspension bridge constructed on this site was that built by Edward Serrell in 1851; just after Ellet’s bridge at the Whirlpool Rapids site.  John Roebling added a guy wire system to this bridge in 1855 after it sustained damage as the result of a winter gale.  Nine years later, human error nullified the guy wires’ effectiveness, and another gale destroyed the bridge in February 1864.  As with Ellet’s bridge at the Whirlpool Rapids, Harriet Tubman COULD have crossed this early Lewiston-Queenston bridge, but we have no corroborating evidence to show that she actually DID cross it. 

Bridges to Freedom

We can now turn to the question of which bridges have documented connections with the Underground Railroad.  While it is certainly possible that several of the bridges may have been used by escaped slaves seeking freedom in Canada, one bridge stands out from the rest when examining the evidence.

Multiple accounts of escapes by freedom seekers refer to “Suspension Bridge.” Mary Epps wrote from Toronto in December 1853 saying that she had arrived “at Suspension Bridge.” Underground Railroad agent William Still put Miss Mariah Moore on the “train of cars that leaves Philadelphia for the Suspension Bridge Niagara Falls” in 1856. Jacob Blockson wrote his wife from St. Catharines in 1858 advising her that “you can come to suspension bridge and from there to St. Catharines.” Rev. A. N. Freeman was elated when, at “the Suspension Bridge” the conductor of his train said: “Sit still; this car goes across.”  Freeman, disguised as “Joe Wright,” was accompanying a fifteen-year-old African-American girl to Canada in 1855.  

Railroad traffic across the border was not interrupted during construction of Buck’s new bridge, and the original anchorage/approach (visible at extreme left) remained in place. Here a train leaves the United States during construction.   Image source: Archives, Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.

In theory, the accounts of Epps and Blockson could refer to either the Roebling bridge at the Whirlpool Rapids or the Serrell bridge connecting Lewiston and Queenston, though the other two surely reference Roebling’s bridge, as it was the only one to accommodate rail traffic.  The story of Joe Bailey’s 1856 crossing with Harriet Tubman, however, leaves no doubt.  This account records that: “The cars began to cross the bridge. Harriet was very anxious to have her companions see the Falls.… ‘Joe, come look at de Falls! Joe, you fool you, come see de Falls! It’s your last chance.’ But Joe sat still and never raised his head. At length Harriet knew by the rise in the center of the bridge, and the descent on the other side, that they had crossed ‘the line.’” Surely such a view would not have been possible from Lewiston, though again the reference to rail travel makes the bridge used a certainty. 

Two things are clear these accounts. First, refugees often crossed the border in railroad cars. Second, at least in Joe Bailey’s case, Niagara Falls was visible from the car and the bridge. The only bridge where these two conditions were possible was the Roebling suspension bridge. Harriet Tubman must have effected Joe Bailey’s rescue in 1856 by way of the Roebling railroad bridge.  Thus while Harriet Tubman COULD have crossed either Ellet’s or Serrell’s bridges on other occasions, there is very strong corroborative evidence that she DID cross Roebling’s bridge, as did several other conductors and freedom seekers.

Extant Evidence

A group of bridge workers pose in front of the New York anchorage of Roebling’s bridge during the construction of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge in 1896. Note the iron fence on top of the anchorage, as specified by Roebling during construction of the suspension bridge in 1854, further evidence that the anchorage was reused for the new bridge.  Image source: Archives, Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.

Having successfully linked John A. Roebling’s suspension bridge to at least one of the freedom crossings made by Harriet Tubman, it remained to discover what, if anything, remained of this important structure.  Happily, we are confident that, at the very least, an unprepossessing mass of masonry on Whirlpool Street in Niagara Falls, New York is the American anchorage and railroad approach to Roebling’s bridge, later incorporated into the Whirlpool Rapids bridge.

This mass of masonry on Whirlpool Street in Niagara Falls, NY, is what remains of the American anchorage and railroad approach to Roebling’s bridge, later incorporated into the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge.  The overpass roadway above is the Robert Moses Parkway.  Image source: Photograph by William H. Siener

Harriet Tubman’s route took her along what is now the right of way of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, and the massive masonry structure on the American side is a part of the earlier bridge on the site that Tubman actually crossed. Such a well-documented monument to the struggle for freedom is something of which Western New Yorkers and Southern Ontarians should be proud. It is a monument to interracial and international cooperation in extending the bounds of liberty and opportunity, and deserves greater care and attention for what it is.

The full content is available in the Spring 2010 Issue.