Meanwhile on the northern side of the border, we’ve been in talks with a couple organizations about potential sponsorship of the film, while another organization has told us of possible donations that could be coming our way soon – giving us another huge boost!
In turn, we’ve began to schedule our US research trips and push our “remote” research further. I’m excited to announce that in November we will be undertaking our first research trip to Baltimore – one that we’ve already started lining up places to visit and people to talk with – and should be able to start collecting materials and fitting puzzle pieces together in a much more concrete way. Given what we’ve discovered so far in London and the area, there’s an aura of excitement around that trip to see what turns up in physical documents and pictures. A thrilling build of anticipation! Be prepared for a swath of information, posts, and photos around that time.
Now all this cross talk of borders really got us researching the actual logistics of how John Mason and Lewis Chambers would have made it across to Canada from the US. In Southern Ontario, there is no land borders whatsoever (in fact, in Ontario overall, there’s also very few in general, and it’s up near Minnesota and Northern Ontario). Two Great Lakes stood as enormous barriers (Erie and Ontario), and huge, fast rivers cut through the land in between (the Detroit river near the Michigan/Amhertsberg crossing, and the Niagara River between Western New York and the “Niagara Frontier” in Ontario). In a time of little technology and dangerous desperation, we can only imagine what an Escaping slave would have felt, getting to the very edge of true freedom and seeing such an incredible obstacle. And with many slave catchers either hot on their heels or stalking around the border to try and catch any would-be border crossers, the biggest gambles may have been taken at that moment.
This brought up the obvious question – how DID they physically get across the river? We focussed our searching on the Niagara River this week, as it was a question that didn’t have a simple answer. Initial searching uncovered a few Underground Railroad locations in Buffalo and Lewiston in New York – as usual, the US side of information is much more accessible than the Canadian side – but nothing concrete. In Fort Erie, there were talks of a park called “Freedom Park”, which legend has it was a major terminus for dropping off newly free Blacks, many of whom would be stepping onto Canadian soil for the very first time (often in the dark). Looking at modern photos, it seems this park is now a parking lot with a plaque or monument in the riverside portion of Fort Erie the town – but when looking towards the past, in the 1850s Fort Erie was almost quite literally a Fort that was south of Freedom Park – and the population of Fort Erie the town was a paltry and scattered 835, many of whom would have been farmers inland from the river or British Militia stationed near the border in the Fort itself. The area itself, of course more famously known for the battles fought on the riverbanks (and the numerous ancient forts that are peppered on either side of the Niagara) and the beautiful Niagara Falls approximately half way between the two lakes that the river connected, was mostly forested. The term “the Niagara Frontier” appears on many maps from that time, almost referring to the sparse, empty wilderness on the western side of the river. Conversely the Eastern banks of the Niagara housed a few growing communities such as Buffalo, Niagara Falls (NY) and Lewiston, a border town that was situated at the beginning of the portion of the river after the falls known as the Niagara Gorge.
For Lewis Chambers and John Mason, swimming across simply wasn’t an option. The water was frigid and rapid, and the distance of a few hundred meters would have been immense to fight the cold that would shut down the body as one swam. Furthermore, at the Buffalo Crossing, getting swept away by the river would be dangerous even if one could keep their head above water and not freeze – the Falls would surely finish the job just a couple miles away. After the falls, it may have seemed more possible, but the massive gorge cut by the river over eons would have created large cliffs and swirling water, making it nearly impossible to go into without some kind of help.
Help, however, was available. Research shows Lewiston was a strong abolitionist community with a “Station Master” (usually the leader of the community that helped the fugitives) that controlled multiple safe houses in the town, the most important of which was a four story home that was built into the gorge and had multiple levels, many with windows that pointed at the Canadian banks across the river. In a location that’s now known as “Freedom Point”, the station master often loaded up Escapees into a canoe and crossed the river to Canada, releasing them to true freedom for the first time in their lives. The community was very tight-lipped about their actions, never letting outsiders know the logistics or details – and that was critical in a time were sympathetics could also be charged with aiding Fugitive Slaves and fined or imprisoned.
Meanwhile, just up from Buffalo was a ferry known as the “Black Rock”, which carted many travellers along a canal in the Niagara River that was forged between a long, narrow island and the mainland. Rumours surfaced that this ferry would stow away Escaping Blacks and ferry them across to Freedom Park in Fort Erie, which seems to be likely considering Freedom Park and the location of the Black Rock Ferry are directly across from one another (it is worth noting, however, that the ferry would have had to go around the Island in the Canal first, a distance that would have made the trip considerably longer).
So, it seems likely that Lewis Chambers and John Mason would have used one of these two methods upon arriving in the area. They both arrived in London and area in the early 1850s, while the first rail bridge that crossed the Niagara River wasn’t complete until 1848 – and while it’s possible that they could have walked across the suspension bridge, logic would point that it’s probably where the heaviest concentration of slave catchers, police, and others that weren’t sympathetic would have been watching. Not to mention the possibility of a train coming while crossing, which would mean certain detection for any on the bridge. It’s possible that Chambers or Mason used it, but of all the crossings, it’s probably the least likely.
Here’s a picture of that train bridge crossing the river over the gorge in 1855, which nicely illustrates the difficulty the natural landscape provided for any that would attempt to cross over.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and it’s fantastic to uncover just another piece of a large, complex, and mostly hidden puzzle.