“Il Signore vi spira una via…”

The Lord will open a way,” the angel said to the very discouraged Experienced Social Settlement Worker who had come all the way from Boston to Niagara Falls after being assigned an especially difficult task by the War Council of the Y.W.C.A.  Though “wholesome, cultured, generous and noble,” it had become undeniable:  our Miss Elizabeth Howe was on the verge of defeat before she even began.  She had traveled the world over, had worked in many unique situations, but this job in Niagara Falls was seemingly impossible.   It was early fall, 1919, when she admitted to Angelo, the Italian janitor at the local Y.W.C.A., that she may never find suitable quarters for the home she was instructed to create for her project. Every place that seemed a satisfactory location had been denied after she explained its ultimate purpose:  to serve as a sort of service bureau for the foreign born.   But Angelo was right.    Two days following her heart-to-heart with the angel, another Italian opened the door to a small three-roomed flat in the heart of Tunnel Town, a tenement house, an ex-macaroni factory.  It was here, amid the buzz of the construction workers, the dust and the plaster, that Miss Howe was finally ready to exclaim:  This is it!  And it was it….

1116 East Falls Street, though an empty lot today, was the setting for immeasurable miracles.  It’s one of those places in Niagara Falls that should be enshrined for its glorious past.  It should especially draw you in if you descend from any of the massive amounts of immigrants that flooded into this city after the First World War--the Italians, the Armenians, the Polish, the Syrians, the Lithuanians, the Russians, the Spanish--to name a few--and even more so if you are a woman.  It was on this spot of earth that a sisterhood of female workers, led by the indomitable Elizabeth Howe, made Americans of thousands upon thousands of women and paved the way for a new world for their granddaughters. 

The International Institute was formed out of necessity in Niagara Falls on October 13, 1920.  Dr. Bill Feder, in his landmark work, "The Evolution of an Ethnic Neighborhood That Became United In Diversity: The East Side, Niagara Falls, New York 1880-1930," states the incredible fact that statistically, Niagara Falls, New York, in the period following WWI, contained the second largest percentage of immigrants in New York State, only overshadowed by New York City.  The thousands of pilgrims from foreign lands found themselves in need of many services.  Especially the women.  Most importantly they needed to learn English.      The International Institute in Niagara Falls was established to assimilate and Americanize the local foreign born women.  In Miss Howe’s own words, “…the main purpose in establishing this institution is to make the foreigner feel at home in this country and particularly in this city.  Our idea is to also make it easier for them to live here, to understand our ways and to understand us…”

Initially, it was quite difficult for Miss Howe to entice the women to the benefits of her establishment—for many of the men were quite opposed to the idea of it and the women were frightened of disobeying.    Her notes reveal the great battles she fought with the local priests, especially.   It was apparent that they felt that the immigrant women didn’t need to venture out of their homes and into the secular world for assistance.  She felt otherwise!  And she won them over in the end with the generosity of her works.  She made it so easy for them.   Once the first few came (out of curiosity) many thousands more followed.  When they said they could not make it because their children needed them, she opened a nursery and welcomed the children, too.  She hired a staff of brilliant female teachers and each of them were fluent in various languages:  Italian, Armenian, Polish, Syrian. Miss Howe, herself, was fluent in numerous languages.   As well as teaching the English language, there were classes on American principles, customs and methods of living, civics, cooking classes and sewing classes. The women were taught how to file birth records, how to fill in their naturalization papers.    There were children’s story times and book clubs for the mothers. Miss Howe and her workers also assisted the women in every sort of social problem and dilemma you could imagine.  One of the last acts of her life was the procuring of a double stroller for an impoverished mother of twins.  During the month of February, 1921, 735 calls for help were recorded and fulfilled at the International Institute.  It is hard to believe such incredible work went on in this empty lot on East Falls Street.   Miss Howe was so proud of what was unfolding before her very eyes.  She mentioned to a Niagara Gazette reporter, one day in January of 1920, “…is it not wonderful and a great country, too?” 

My favorite Miss Howe story occurred in November of 1920.  I really can’t read it without shedding a few tears. Imagine Mrs. S….an Italian woman in Miss Howe’s conversational English class.  An otherwise enthusiastic pupil, she was terrified of the snow (after breaking her leg a few years before) and had announced to the class that she probably would not venture out if the snow was bad.  Perfect attendance was something all of the women aspired to and something Miss Howe promoted for she knew all too well how easy it would be for the women to fall out of school.  Class began this one particular blustery day—without Mrs. S.   The women shook their heads at Mrs. S’s absence.  But then, there she was!  She had come after all.   Her classmates clapped their hands with joy when she appeared and when the excitement subsided she told the class of the “miracle” that had occurred.  Even as hard as it had snowed, and she had decided to stay home, she looked out of her window and saw a perfect path had been shoveled from her door to that of the International Institute.  “Il Signore vi spira una via…”  One can only imagine who had produced this “miracle.”  I’m sure the women knew straight November 15, 1922away, but Miss Howe does not elaborate.  The best part of the story is the end, though.  Miss Howe scribbles one last thing: “Mrs. S. is the wife of an American citizen and when Mr. S voted, Mrs. S. voted, too….”  When I read this over, I realized that this was not just “one last thing…”  It was the first election that American women could lawfully vote in due to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution and Mrs. S. had voted!    As moving as this may have been, Miss Howe added one more little footnote….”I’m sorry to add to the story that Mrs. S. voted according to the advice of her husband….”    Miss Howe knew we still had a ways to go…but it was a start. 

I think it’s inevitable that this time of year, my colleague (Pete Ames) and I think of Miss Howe.  He introduced me to her a few years ago.  She is his favorite stop in Oakwood.  Quite appropriately, she lies in Strangers Rest, among the stunters and the great challengers of the Falls—for in the end, she, too, fought bravely against the odds.  She was only here for a few years however her great legacy of love remains.  Even the newspapers of her day remarked about her work of love. Pete and I have planned to stand over her grave on November 15th, the anniversary of her death, and tell her how she isn’t forgotten, how we love her.  I plan on saying it in Italian, the language of my ancestors, and he plans on saying it in Armenian, the language of so many of her students.    

After learning of her story, perhaps you will think of Miss Howe, too, in November.  It was the month of her birth, the month of her death.  Strangely, it is the month we choose to elect the leaders of our nation—that right so sought after by our great grandmothers.    It’s that time of year when the leaves fall and the trees are left empty and naked, their jagged bones scratching against a gray sky—wondering whatever happened to the beautiful blue heavens?  It was Miss Howe who let everyone in out of the cold and into that little promised land that she called the International Institute. 

Clementina Ventresca FortunaIt just so happens that in November I also think of my great grandmother, Clementina Ventresca Fortuna--who has a birthday this month, too.   I doubt my great grandmother and Miss Howe ever met, but their stories do, indeed, meet in this city at the edge of the world.  My great grandmother came to Niagara Falls, an Italian immigrant, just a few months before Miss Howe’s death.  A young woman, fleeing a forced marriage, she found herself in this new and frightening place, longing to make it her home.  My great grandmother learned enough English to get by and she and my great grandfather saw their dreams come true when they opened Fortuna’s restaurant in 1945.   Her daughter, my grandmother, Gina Fortuna, born in 1924, would have given Miss Howe such pride.  The child of Italian immigrants, my grandmother was determined from childhood to make her mark in the world. She hardly slept a wink during WWII, lying about her age to get herself a job at Bell Aircraft.  Although her father gave her the option (and strongly favored it) to quit school in order to work the long night hours, continuing her education became her battle cry.  While a mother of two, she went to college and obtained a Bachelors and a Masters degree.  She even served as a county legislator in Niagara Falls.   Somehow, she translated Miss Howe’s message into her own life and passed it onto all of the girls in the family:  success is possible with confidence and knowledge.

Miss Howe was only fifty three when she died of pneumonia on November 15, 1922.  The incredible burden of her work proved to be too much, even for a woman of her stamina, and it seems that she literally had worked herself to death.  Women of twenty five nations were brought together because of the hard work and deep devotion of one woman.  Day or night she was there for those in dire need and thousands of acts of social service were rendered.  The notes she kept are priceless.  Sharon Henry, my colleague at the Lewiston Public Library, and I have transcribed what was left of the poorly microfilmed records from the International Institute.  Her story has touched our lives and hopefully will reach into our daughters’ lives.  Once upon a time there was a little fireball of a woman in Niagara Falls who paved the way so the rest of us may live in a world of opportunity and unlimited freedom. 

You are welcome to read the Reports of Miss Elizabeth Howe, International Institute, at the Lewiston Public Library.

Another Homeless Ghost

An imaginary encounter with Mrs. Mary Anna Laughlin Walker

It was a Sunday in August following the destruction of the house known as “921 Main Street” when I met with a ghost in Oakwood Cemetery.  Out of the corner of my eye, I was sure that I could see a weeping and agitated female form lingering over a distant gravestone.  She had appeared out of summer rain and nothingness.   I suddenly thought for a moment that she must be an incarnation of what my friend Jimmy Silvaroli, lead investigator from Niagara Falls Paranormal, would call a lepke; a perfect and human manifestation in a cemetery, undeniably visible for a short time.  And then she was gone.  But before her inscrutable disappearance I walked over to her and spoke with her.  She, being fascinated by this acknowledgement of her being, told me about herself and how the demolition of her home rendered her a homeless ghost.  How she, and so many of our other pioneers who have found themselves forced out of their living quarters, are lost in Niagara…and what would I do?  I told her that I was not a wrangler of ghosts, but I would listen to her story and do my best to render assistance. 

Our little tryst began with me seated under a shady oak, pencil and paper in hand, and with her draped over a tall gravestone, elbows bent and a fist beneath a pointy chin.  Her dress was white and impeccably pressed.  Her eyes unfolded before me as if a giant blue banner, not unlike the sky and clouds.    A little breeze picked up and I noticed how—unnaturally-- her hair did not move as mine did.  She appeared other-dimensional and fixed as a movie image—although I understood that she was actually alive (in some sense) and that she eerily contemplated all of my moves with great interest.  

Feverishly, she began to relay the week’s horrible events, but not without telling me the details of her life and the circumstances of her spiritual disarray.   Her voice was faint, a passing whimper, and as I scribbled furiously I am sure I missed bits and pieces while an ambulance or a helicopter flooded the soundscape.  And so she commenced her story with the tragic events of August 4, 2011…

Being afflicted so regularly with the usual weakness and dissipation that comes from the break of day and sunlight…I wondered what noise and commotion had stirred me from that heavy sleep.  It was the men and their machines coming for my house.  I was much familiar with that sense of impending violence toward that vessel of my being.  There had been talk before of destruction and in years past even fires had swept through this place.  I slammed doors and shrieked with a voice to the center of my energy source--but to no avail.  I was taken for the wind. As for the fire…I had been able to stop it before it consumed the place.  Whirling like a cyclone.  Blowing into the burning cinders with a deep and cold breath.  I saved some paintings that way….But this time it was…unstoppable…their rude machines clawing into the veins within the walls, tearing through layers and stairwells, ripping away the rooftop.  Terror accosted me and I found myself clinging to pieces of wood, a floorboard, a doorframe…shrinking into a spider’s web.  Then the great and formidable quiet…and the questions that plagued me most of all.  What to do?  Where will I go? This house had been my shelter for many years.  Of course, Anthony had wanted me out and now he has finally had his day…but I will have mine yet….

Her eyes blackened with this and turned away from me, for a moment, and then she began again.   

I surveyed the scene and bounced onto the warmth of a passerby. He was kindly, though very perturbed at my home’s wreckage. Almost as if it had been his own.   And then he took a piece of the rubble and carried it off.  It was the “921” and it was a piece of my home. Miserable and defeated, I curled in between the numbers until I fell asleep.  When I awakened…I found that I was here….at this place.  And I was not alone.  There are others here that have found themselves in a similar predicament…their ancient haunts desecrated to a pile of rubble.  We wander together and alone.  We take turns gathering heat from the living, from rays of sun, from squirrels and rabbits, the crows…from you.  And your heat gives us form and voice.  

It was then that she extended a bony, white hand and brought it to my cheek and my thoughts rushed away in a tumble of water as wild as Niagara Falls.  I was frightened to the depths of my soul but, still, there was a curiosity that stopped me from running out of those gates.  Though I trembled, I couldn’t help but ask her…who are you?  And she answered…

My name is Mary Anna Walker.  Ha…I had almost forgotten that I had a name as it has been ages since I have told anyone at all. Or heard it uttered…When  I was a girl…I was Mary Anna Laughlin.   I was born in 1862, in the old village of LaSalle.  My people were Irish Catholics.  I remember most…the peaches.  The most wonderful peaches in the world grew on Cayuga Island.  Everyone would come for them.  If only I could taste one now…it was the peaches that brought him to me, my Anthony. We courted for a short time. Our pleasure was to race with his team alongside the river with our hearts on fire.  How Niagara will do that to you…make you wish to join her in that rush over the rocks.  Into her cool, sweet mouth.   We were married in 1878.  He was from Suspension Bridge, then Clarksville, the son of English Protestants.  Just the beginning of our troubles…

And our Mary cried.  It was strange for me to see a ghost with actual tears and I contemplated that fact but then reassured myself that the whole experience was unlike any other.  I wasn’t sure if she had decided she had said enough and just as I was on the verge of disappointment she spoke again…

It was a life of luxury…my little stint as Miss-us An-tho-ny Walk-er.  He was an entrepreneur even at seventeen.  Let me tell you he held the sole proprietorship of the laundry industry in Niagara Falls for many years.  With a four cylinder mangle that cost more than $1,000…he could do flat work and his plant had a capacity of 9,000 pieces per day. Not to mention a Sinclair shirt ironer and a Durey shirt starcher.  The boiler had a 60 horsepower capacity. Lots of steam!  Mr. Walker had plenty of steam and some to share!  Hahaha…

And she laughed but it really wasn’t so much of a laugh as it was a mockery of a laugh.  It was frightening and made me gasp for breath to hear the ghost laugh like this. 

 “Fine work done, Mr. Walker!  A laundry and carpet cleaning establishment that is a credit to the city of Niagara Falls!  Everything done in No. 1 order. Tip top.  Ship shape. Family Washing 4 cents a pound.  No. 356, No. 358 and No. 360 Main Street…telephone is 46…”

She smoothed her sleeves, the perfect lines of her skirt.  Pushed her face so close into mine that I caught a fluttering aroma…one of wet leaves and grass, dirt, the ruffled feathers of a black bird.    

And such a fleet of swift carriages he had…delivering the fruits of his sanitary enterprise throughout the day hours.  But it was the night that was for soiling those perfect white sheets…with his filthy girlfriends.  When my boy was just a little molly-coddle, he stayed closer to home…and it was our amiable Nancy Young—servant girl—a Canuck-- that brought a glimmer to his eye.  I was sorely forgotten and stashed away like the fine china…only brought out when necessary.  He certainly ate off the other little plates…Miss Margy Hayes and Miss Clara Jackson…and in the end didn’t his sweethearts receive all the leftovers?  For me, the crumbs…one dollar, Miss Pencil-pusher.  How would you feel about one dollar for a lifetime of servitude and devotion?

I let go of my pencil and set my paper on the grass. Miss Pencil-pusher! Of course, I was confused and frightened by her pathos.  She was quite assuredly, a woman rejected and scorned for ages.  What pent up sadness!  She was one of those lost souls; expected to “put up” with much more than the rest of us.  And when she told me about Howard James, I felt it would have been rude for me to start writing again, so I made mental note of the rest of our encounter. 

Howard James was born in September of 1889 and I lost him on February 25, 1914.  He was only twenty five and just two years into his marriage with Florence upon his death. They were married in Welland in order to evade such publicity as would have followed him.   Of course, there was that other marriage…but it hadn’t worked out. I suppose like father, like son…In the end all that really mattered was that it wasn’t fair that a woman could lose everything she ever had.  I had my social and civic affairs and my circle of friends…but that wasn’t enough for a woman who had lost a husband and a child.  And then…my home. 

Anthony died on March 18, 1921, leaving a large estate and a very peculiar will.  To his former employee, the constant Margy Hayes, bookkeeper—$10,000, a house and a lot in Ontario.  To his tried and true Miss Clara Jackson--$5,000 and an island in the Niagara! St. Mary’s Hospital received a $4,000 legacy.  For Mrs. Anthony Walker?  Hahaha…$1.00.  If it weren’t for the swift business of Judge Hickey it would have been $1.00 and $1.00 alone…but his reconstruction of the will gave me life use of the homestead at 921 Main Street.  That was it and I vowed I would never leave.  Never ever leave 921 Main Street. 

She stopped and walked a few paces; propped herself, like a doll, against her little gravestone…Mary A. Walker, 1862-1938.  She was pensive, deep in thought for a moment, and then she shook her head gracefully and concluded her story.

But I’ve left 921 Main Street, now haven’t I? In fact, it was really a prison, wasn’t it? Your friend carried me away in his arms.  I must have been quite the burden.  I do hope he didn’t receive any slivers or blisters from the cracked and broken wood.  My ridiculous green and purple painted beauty!  But he saved me and he saved my “921.”  Like a sea captain, he took me through a bumpy mysterious expanse of time and destiny, and now I’m here…where I belong…in Oakwood.  Howard is here, and Anthony…yes, there is much, much time for reconciliation...or not. It’s up to me what I want…after all of these years.  I am waiting for a crow or a person, maybe a child full of vibrance, to walk through these gates and give them some light so we can begin again.  I have seen the others, the shadows, the homeless ghosts who have been cast out into the darkness and the cold but have somehow made it here…and they wait for you. Always wait and then take a little piece of your light…just a little piece is all we need to come alive.   

I picked up my pencil and my paper to write some more, but our supposed “lepke” was gone and instead a large black crow stood and shook out its rain soaked wings upon the grave of Mary Anna Walker.  Somehow, I had the feeling that I would see her one day, again, soon.  And I was tired, very tired.  

A Little Ghost Story to Commemorate the Life and Death (and the reawakening) of Capt. Matthew Webb

Order this poster from Allposters.comPerhaps she was a raving lunatic, or perhaps she had actually spoken with him many years following his death in Niagara’s rapids.  We will never know for sure, unless by some chance we can figure out a way to send a couple of investigators from Niagara Falls Paranormal back in time to check it out.  We do know a few things, though…that in May of 1893 a party of travelers stopped here at Niagara Falls on their way to the World’s Fair.  They were with the Polytechnic Cooperative Excursion Co. of No. 309 Regent Street, London, England—a peculiar bunch led by Mr. Newton Smith.  Their group included a somnambulist who kept the whole ship from sleeping and another woman, Miss Hall, who combined vegetarianism and spiritualism and stirred it all up with a “cranky disposition.”  We also know that Miss Hall, or “Snowdrop,” as she was known in the spirit realm, claimed to have had an encounter with the ghost of Captain Matthew Webb, the champion swimmer who had broken all records by successfully swimming the English Channel in 1875 but lost his life to Niagara on July 24, 1883. 

But then there was poor Miss Ettie Castle, of London, England!  Unfortunately, she had the misfortune of sharing a room on board the steamship with the sleep walker and the vegetarian-spiritualist.  It was anything but smooth sailing as she was repeatedly awakened throughout the night by the startling cries of Miss Hall who was convinced that she was being pursued by demons and by the other strange woman who “got in her work” and wandered around the cabin as if in a trance.  It seemed inevitable that a visit to Niagara would incite more fantastic supernatural events.  One of the most vibrant cities in the world for spiritualists, the falling water was believed to fascinate one and all.  So it was no surprise that Miss Hall found herself in the midst of another realm while gazing upon the rapids and the whirlpool.  She revealed afterward that it was here, in this place, that a fine gentleman came upon her and struck up a melancholy conversation.  He was handsome, friendly… and his very presence commanded respect.  An Englishwoman, she knew at once it was him.  During Victorian times Captain Webb’s face was well known throughout the British empire.  It was not uncommon for the traveler to pay a visit to his grave at Oakwood Cemetery.   But here he stood before her, at the scene of his demise, just a shadow of a man…but still a man, nonetheless, and he lamented his sad state of affairs. 

“Snowdrop…I regret that I took that last trip.  It was a little too much for me that time and I should not have tried it.”

Miss Hall claimed that these were his exact words. 

Though he was king of the world for a time after his miraculous conquering of the English Channel in twenty one hours and forty five minutes (back in 1875), his brazen idea of beating Niagara was never a good one.  He received no encouragement from the locals who knew that only tragedy would come of this sort of sport.  It didn’t matter to them that he was a superstar.  He had no chance against Niagara.  When the date of his planned swim arrived--Tuesday, July 24th, 1883-- it was said he was cheerful and perfectly confident of impending success.  He left the Clifton House at about 4:00 and walked down a hill where he took a small scow and was rowed out into the river while an audience of onlookers gathered to watch the spectacle.  He was never seen again after 4:33 that summer afternoon.  All that was left was to wait for Niagara to spit out his body—which occurred in Lewiston on Saturday, July 28th.  A telegram was sent to Boston at once to inform his wife of the sad occurrence.   Coroner Elsheimer took the body under his care and finally it was sent on to Oakwood Cemetery to remain in the vault for many months until Mrs. Webb could decide the next course of action.  A “very incomplete postmortem examination” was made and it was revealed that he had been killed by the intense pressure of the water.  Ultimately, Mrs. Webb decided to leave him to us, to Niagara.  The casket was trimmed with Masonic emblems and members of the local fraternity assisted with the burial in the midst of a severe winter storm and deep snow. 

Did Mrs. Webb err upon leaving him here, lonesome, at Niagara-the final tragic scene of a great life?  Perhaps the Captain doesn’t appreciate living in the shadow of his defeat for at night it is still possible to hear Niagara’s great heaving roar through the cars and people-noises.  Maybe it’s time for us to make an effort to take notice-- like the raving vegetarian-spiritualist, Miss Hall-- when we hear those little whispers from the past.  It could awaken something very interesting, like Captain Matthew Webb, himself.    


from “A Shropshire Lad”

by John Betjeman



…when we saw the ghost of Captain Webb,
Webb in a water sheeting,
Come dripping along in a bathing dress
To the Saturday evening meeting.
Dripping along, dripping along,
To the Congregational Hall;
Dripping and still he rose over the sill
And faded away in a wall.

When Your Blood Runs Reb, White and Blue…..

For Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, by Michelle Kratts

I have often found myself in a precarious position when I study the Civil War.  As I work on creating a tour for our upcoming “Angels in the Battlefield; a Civil War Tour of Oakwood Cemetery,” slated for Saturday, July 16th, at Oakwood Cemetery, I can’t help but allow my mind to wander back into my own family history during this time period. When I was a little girl my sweet grandmother would come up from down south to visit and I never hesitated to ask her about our own family stories.   As my father’s people were 100% dixie, she would often tell me about our southern past and life before and during the Civil War.  She especially liked to talk about Grandpa Chambless. 

John Albert Chambless had been born on a plantation not too far from Atlanta, Georgia, and when just a young man had ventured off to Texas.  In January of 1862, he enlisted in Maxey’s 9th Texas Infantry and served until the end of the war.  He fought at Shiloh, Vicksburg, the Battle of Stone River.  He was in Atlanta when it burned—I imagine it was a grim time for him as he found his beloved Georgia utterly devastated.     While in a Union camp for prisoners of war he saw a pathetic, dying man leaning against a fence post.  Upon closer examination he realized it was his own brother, Frank—who had not much longer to live for he died shortly after from wounds and disease.  Two of my grandfather’s brothers, my uncles, are buried at Vicksburg.  I have other grandfathers that were Confederates and countless uncles and cousins that screamed into battle with a rebel yell.  My grandmother was so proud of our ancestors and our history and I was so excited to hear her stories that told me of “my people.”  However, as I learned more about the war and the circumstances that led to the war, it was inevitable that a great feeling of guilt would come over me.  I was suddenly ashamed that a part of me had been on the “wrong” side of this trying moment in our nation’s history.  As a genealogist, my research confirmed all my worst fears…my family had been in the business of buying and selling human beings for hundreds of years.  I found early censuses and wills from the 1600’s that made that ugly fact quite evident.  How could I ever reconcile the reality that my ancestors were slave-holding Confederates?  It’s a strange thing but I found the answer here in the Porter plot in Oakwood Cemetery and while researching for our “Angels in the Battlefield” tour. 

It seems that I am not the only resident of Niagara Falls whose blood runs Reb, White and Blue.  There is a well-known family who sleeps peacefully behind the grand black iron fence and I’m quite sure if we could hear their whispers we would hear quite a bit of the southern drawl.   Peter Buell Porter is responsible for this for in 1818 he chose Miss Letitia Breckenridge for his wife.  It was said that when Peter first set his eyes on this beautiful Kentucky belle he was smitten for life.  In order to court her before their marriage he rode on horseback through the length of Ohio and deep into Kentucky.  Her family was one of the most prominent families in all of the southern states.   Perhaps even Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife, was connected by blood with the Breckenridge family.  

John Breckenridge, Letitia’s father, was a Member of the House of Burgesses , U.S. District Attorney of Kentucky, Attorney General of Kentucky, a Kentucky State Representative, a delegate to the Kentucky Constitutional Convention, a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, and the Attorney General of the United States under Thomas Jefferson .  Letitia’s first husband was Alfred William Grayson, son of Senator William Grayson of Virginia.  He died in 1810, leaving her a widow.   Letitia had one surviving son with Grayson and his name was John Breckenridge Grayson.  John graduated from West Point and was Lieutenant Colonel of the US Army…until 1861…when the southern states began seceding.  Upon the creation of the Confederate States of America, he was commissioned as a Brigadier General and died in Florida while in command of the coastal defenses of Florida and Georgia.  Letitia had two surviving children with Peter Buell:  Elizabeth and Peter Augustus.  Peter A. married his first cousin, another lady from Kentucky, Mary Breckenridge.  Her sister, Margaret, also came along to live with the newlyweds in Niagara Falls at the beautiful manor on the River.  Peter became Colonel of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery and died leading his men into battle at Cold Harbor, Virginia.  Elizabeth and Margaret, followed him into war and served as nurses for the Union troops.  Mary died quite early in their marriage and Elizabeth and Margaret succumbed to poor health and disease contracted during their time in war service. 

When I try to straighten the families out there is one thing that remains certain:  the Porter/Breckenridge family truly represented the anguish and division that ran deep within our nation during the Civil War. I have found various old newspaper clippings that refer to Breckenridge visits to Niagara Falls in the pre-war years.  Though diverse in their sentiments, and separated by miles and climate, I am quite sure they were a loving and close-knit family.  This is revealed in the fact that so many of them married within their family, often even first cousins.  Unfortunately, circumstances tore them apart and in the end it came down to two cousins on a battlefield in Virginia.  One would win a battle but the other would win the war.  

Peter and Elizabeth were well aware of that certain ugly truth that went alongside their southern heritage. Although their family participated in the system of slavery for many generations, they detested their own connections to that vile system of human bondage.   It was said that their mother had received special permission to keep her slaves in New York, even as slavery had been proclaimed illegal. Slaves may have been among their house servants.  Peter and Elizabeth often inherited slaves from their ancestral estates yet freed them immediately upon arrival.  Elizabeth would find them homes in Niagara Falls and procure work for them in the local hotels.  She was a self-proclaimed abolitionist and spared no pretense.  In fact, while in a gentleman’s company one afternoon in Florida she made her views quite apparent. Upon riding past a certain tree, this gentleman proudly proclaimed that it was “…here where they hanged an abolitionist…” Her response must have threw him from his horse for she declared that she, too, was an abolitionist, and if it is a crime…well, he was perfectly free to take her and hang her from that very tree, too.     Peter’s “secret charitable works” are still a mystery however the early Underground Railroad researchers knew that it was “Col. P” who had the reigns over the movement in Niagara.  One story exists to this day of an incredible carriage chase through Niagara Falls involving “Col P’ in which a bounty hunter quite unsuccessfully sought the possession of a runaway named “Cassie” because of the heroic acts of a certain wealthy and powerful gentleman.  Perhaps it was no coincidence that the lines for the Underground Railroad that ended in Niagara Falls began in Kentucky. 

When war was declared the Porters found themselves in an unusual position.  What would they do?  They knew a brutal war would wreak havoc upon their family and indeed it did.  Always at the top of things, the Breckenridge family had leaders on both sides of the conflict.  Their mother’s brother, Rev. Robert Jefferson Breckenridge, was outspoken in his abolitionist verbatim and became an advisor to President Lincoln.  However, their first cousin, John Cabell Breckenridge, went the other way.  A well-known politician, and a former Vice President of the United States, John ran for President against Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1860 on a pro-slavery ticket.  Upon the secession of the states, he was assigned the position of Secretary of War and Brigadier General of the Confederate forces.  When Peter finally accepted the position of Colonel of the 8th NY Heavy Artillery, he found himself on a battlefield in Cold Harbor, Virginia, where he faced the Confederate forces led by his cousin, John Cabell Breckenridge.  Peter was killed.  John was wounded.  It has been suggested that John, himself, had ordered the sharpshooter to aim for Peter.  No one knows for sure but Cold Harbor was a devastating moment for the Federal forces and especially for Niagara County.  Over 100 Niagarans lost their lives in just a few hours. 

When the war ended, John Cabell (along with other Confederate leaders including Jefferson Davis) came to Niagara-on-the-Lake and lived in exile for a time.  Somehow they were comforted looking across the waters at the American flag that waved triumphantly beside Fort Niagara.  I wonder if Elizabeth ever met with John. He was only a few moments away.   Could she forgive him for Peter’s death? 

Over 150 years have passed since the onset of the Civil War and yet, at times, I feel it still plays out somewhere inside of those of us whose ancestors have been there.  As I put the Porters lives back together I find some comfort in realizing that no matter where we have come from, we are individuals first.  Our ancestors had their reasons, whatever they may have been, as we have ours.  Most of all, they were merely victims of circumstance.    It’s ultimately up to us to decide what position we will play in this battlefield which is our life. 

Learn more about the Porters and many other Civil War stories that were born in Niagara Falls at our upcoming tour, “Angels in the Battlefield; A Civil War Tour of Oakwood Cemetery.”  Details will be posted on the website. 


Oakwood has its angels….

For Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, NY by Michelle Kratts

Have you ever thought of placing a flag beside a veteran’s grave on Memorial Day? Maybe this year will be a first for you.  In years past there was no greater event than Memorial Day.  Thousands lined the streets in a procession that led to Oakwood Cemetery.  Every single home and business along the way proudly draped itself in the red, white and blue.   This was the day our city honored our most esteemed citizens, our veterans.     There were some special homes, some special graves, that the veterans, themselves, insisted upon honoring each Memorial Day.  They belonged to three most spectacular women: Elizabeth Letitia Porter, Margaret Elizabeth Breckinridge, and Julia Averill Griffen.  They were Army nurses during the Civil War, angels of the battlefield, and now Oakwood’s special angels. 


Elizabeth, Margaret, and Julia were the cream of the crop of Niagara Falls society. They were not ordinary women at all and the wounded men knew that.  They sacrificed lives of comfort and privilege, of pianos and afternoons memorizing love poems, for every sort of degradation, disease and despair the world could offer.  They gave a chapter of their girlhood to shoes caked in a strange mix of dirt and blood, dresses splashed with the insides of men, to typhoid and erysipelas.  Saturday night dances included struggling with a broken down man on the way to the surgeon’s table.    There were times they were able to make it home to Niagara, to recover from illness and exhaustion, but they inevitably found themselves longing to return to the battle lines.   The love of their country and their fellow man was tattooed onto their souls and stayed with them even into Death.


Elizabeth, the exceptionally intelligent, highly cultivated daughter of General Porter (hero of the War of 1812, Secretary of War under John Quincy Adams) and Letitia  Breckinridge (a southern belle with an impeccable pedigree), was born at Black Rock (Buffalo) on April 19, 1823. For a time she was rumored to have been “the woman Mr. (Millard) Fillmore intended to lead to the altar.” Perhaps a bit reckless in speech, she was known to often boast to European royalty that her family “owned the Falls.”    When the war broke out she was firm and steadfast in her convictions.  In May of 1861, she inherited two slaves from her grandfather’s Kentucky estate and promptly freed them.  She was at the forefront of the women’s aid society in Niagara Falls and in 1862 left with her brother’s regiment for Baltimore where she served for many months as an Army nurse. In 1863, when she was back in Niagara Falls on sick leave, she roused herself to come to the aid of a returning infantry unit that had also returned with most of its men gravely ill.  She nursed them back to health and even insisted that they take her carriage and team for a tour of the Falls.   In June of 1864, she bravely brought her dear brother, Col. Peter A. Porter’s, lifeless body back to Niagara Falls where he was laid to rest in Oakwood Cemetery.  Her experiences during the war rendered her an invalid and she died in Niagara Falls on January 28, 1876.  She sleeps in the Porter plot at Oakwood, a giant in our history,  sadly mostly forgotten by residents of the city she loved most of all. 


Margaret Breckinridge was Elizabeth and Peter’s first cousin. Born in Philadelphia on March 24, 1832, her grandfather had been a senator from Kentucky and the Attorney General of the United States under Thomas Jefferson.  When her beloved older sister married their dashing cousin, Peter A. Porter, Margaret also came to live in Niagara Falls.  She found the beautiful Porter home to be a most interesting resort for the meeting of literary and scientific minds, a shelter for the poor and homeless, possibly the hub of Niagara’s Underground Railroad, and the center of all local society.  With the outbreak of war, she, too, along with her cousins, volunteered her services.  Most of the time she served as a nurse on the hospital boats that travelled up and down the Mississippi.  Soldiers never forgot her.  She sang to them, read to them.  They said it seemed she didn’t walk, she flew.   How strange they thought it was for such a high-class lady to come and find herself bothered by them!  In a letter to a friend she wrote of this and remarked that she had “come so many miles on purpose to be bothered.” 

When Peter was killed at Cold Harbor in June of 1864 she was heartbroken.  Perhaps her relationship with him was more intimate than publicly revealed for loved ones hesitated to break the news knowing it would utterly devastate Margaret.  And it did.  She met Elizabeth in Baltimore and accompanied Peter’s body back to Niagara Falls.  The blow was ultimately too great for her and her broken down body succumbed to disease and exhaustion.  She died of typhoid fever on July 27, 1864, just a month after Peter.  She was only 32 years old.   I believe her tomb may be the most beautiful in all of Oakwood.  It is inscribed as follows:  “A life most precious and most beautiful such as consecrated to God and to duty and laid down in its prime in her devotion to her country and to humanity.”


Perhaps one of the most interesting of the angels of Oakwood is Julia Averill Griffen.  Born in Hudson, New York, to Jane Hardick and Isaac Griffen, her paternal grandfather was a Quaker.  When she was 13 her family moved to Stamford, Ontario, where her uncle, Cornelius, owned and lived in the Clifton House.   During the Gold Rush of 1849, Cornelius attempted to make his way out to California, but met his demise before he arrived.  His wife moved to Suspension Bridge and the other Griffens followed her to Niagara Falls.  At the onset of war, Julia’s brother, Cornelius enlisted, and then, she decided that she must serve as well. 

She went to New York City for training and then on to Washington, D.C., where she worked under Dorothea Dix.  She spent much time on the front and was taken prisoner following the battle of Winchester.  After being paroled, she served more time at the front with the army of the Potomac.  The men of Col. Porter’s 8th NY Heavy Artillery met with her among the wounded and the prisoners and made note of her kindness and skill.  When the war had ended, she found herself chronically ill with asthma due to time spent upon the battlefield.  She fought the US government year after year for the right to a pension.  Finally, in 1888, by a special act of Congress, she was awarded a military pension.  She was so beloved for her service to her country that on Memorial Day celebrations the veterans of the G.A.R. honored her by lowering their flags upon passing her home.  She died on December 18, 1891, at the age of 60 and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery. 


Usually, it is our custom to honor soldiers on Memorial Day, but the soldiers of Niagara Falls made a habit of honoring these three women.  Years have passed and most of us have never heard these names, yet there were men who had them upon their lips as they marched into heaven.  It was 150 years ago when three angels came from Niagara Falls and gave their lives for their country.  Perhaps on May 31, 2011, we should remember Elizabeth, Margaret and Julia and place a flag upon their graves.   It’s the least that we can do.  

A Road Most Traveled

For Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, NY by Michelle Kratts

There is a road alongside Oakwood Cemetery that leads a most famous trail of early American history.  Most drive through without realizing that each visit is a brush with destiny.  On Portage Road we walk beside ghosts.  Volleys pass over our cars, soldiers rifle by and a lone rider flies through the grass and trees on a magical horse.  This road is no ordinary road.  It has been christened with the blood and sweat of heroes.  It has many stories to tell and probably many, many more secrets to hold until the end of time.  


“Worn by thousands of feet in moccasins before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock…” the Native Americans first carved it out as a sacred walkway between the landings at Lewiston and Niagara Falls. Like a maze, it was set inside a wild and primordial forest of oak, beech and iron wood trees, and for a time a man could only move through single file.  The eyes of dangerous animals gazed out hungrily from the blackness as they passed through.   The French, the first white men at Niagara,  called it the portage, or the carrying place, as it was the only way to conduct trade as all routes were abruptly cut and made impossible by the presence of the world’s most famous waterfall, Niagara.  This walkway was the lifeline that connected the New World to Europe. They cleared land and built forts alongside the portage, while Seneca warriors taunted and burned everything as swiftly as it was erected.  When the English came, they fought with the French over it and for a time--it has been stated-- the portage became the most important road in North America, for whoever controlled this line of trampled grass controlled the fate of western civilization.


There was a master of the portage and I like to think he rides down this road like the headless horseman every year on a particular night in September.    Hailing from Herefordshire, England, John Stedman came to Niagara following the defeat of the French at Fort Niagara and had been given the task of widening the portage road and smoothing out the rough spots.  His family line went all the way back to John De Steddanham, the son of an English nobleman and Crusader.  This ancestor was a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and had for arms a cross fleury Vert in a field Or.  According to an ancient tradition, John De Steddanham brought with him to England a chalice made from the cross on which Jesus was crucified.  Other accounts state that it was actually the Holy Grail, itself.  Regardless, it is believed that John Stedman, the master of the Niagara portage, brought the banner of his ancestors to Niagara where he may have raised it as a flag upon the old stone chimney that now sleeps upon an embankment by the river.  He may have brought it to this new world as a token of his family’s mystical history and for divine protection.  We will never know for sure, but we do know that strangely, on September 14, 1763, during what was to be known as the Devil’s Hole Massacre, Stedman was one of only three to survive a massacre of wagon trains with his life intact.   The Seneca attackers attributed the preservation of Stedman to some “miraculous interposition”, and believing he wore a charmed life, conferred up him the name of “Ga-nas-squah, signifying, stone giant.” They reported that neither arrows, bullets nor tomahawk could penetrate the mysterious force that protected Stedman and his horse as they rushed through the portage back to the fort.  Stedman claimed that it was this miracle that made the Seneca more inclined to leave him in peace and to offer him, personally, much of their most precious land in Niagara.  He left Niagara and the portage behind when he evacuated with the British garrison in 1796.  A Loyalist, he was in Canada for awhile and then returned to his family estate in England where he died in 1808.   But if there ever was a place that his spirit would want to roam it would be here, along this road, where he will always undoubtedly be the proclaimed master.   


It wasn’t long before war and bloodshed found their way to Niagara and the portage.  But, at first, when the War of 1812 blew into Niagara it was nothing but a ruse.  Perhaps many historians will disagree, because war is so serious a deal, but it seems to me that the officers on either side of the river really did not entertain any real reason for making battle upon this land.  In fact, when the declaration hit it is said that many of them were, at the moment, engaged in peaceful entertaining at the beautiful village of Newark (Niagara on the Lake). So they said their goodbyes and then proceeded to wage a bloody war.  Many New Yorkers, who happened to be new settlers and farmers, right along this road, were not very interested in blowing things up and losing limbs.  The idea of an invasion of Canada was actually quite loathsome and they made that well known by frequent desertions and actually refusing to go into battle.  However, when war was unavoidable and the cannons could be heard from across the river, a foreign deep and rumbling note in the usual chorus of rock and water, and the soldiers could be seen marching along the gorge, their red coats visible from the chasm…they enlisted into the local militias. 


One cute story of the games men play was conceived just down the road from Oakwood Cemetery, on the portage, at Mr. Pierce’s watering hole, a popular tavern that was situated in a cozy corner across from the location of the present Niagara Falls Public Library.  The tavern keeper, Gad Pierce, was beginning to feel the tension and thought he would do something about it.  He gathered a large amount of local men, including Tuscaroras, and concocted a crazy and outlandish plan to outwit the Brits.  Pierce’s idea was to instill fear across the river by creating an illusion of strength.  Short guns and other equipment, they gathered every cane, ramrod and stick and mounted horses which they marched up and down the River Road until they got to Fort Niagara where they practiced more drills.  To the men on the Canadian side, it looked like a large regiment of Cavalry.  However, to those close by, it was a most ridiculous vision of a hodgepodge of blankets, plow horses and old men.  When the British did come on that fateful day in December of 1813, following the burning of Lewiston, Gad Pierce and four other men bravely awaited their advance.  They had sent their families away some time before but they stayed to protect the property.  Ultimately the British force was too large for these five men.  They fired some shots but fled out the door and down beside the portage into the woods.   Pierce returned to Niagara after the war and made himself quite a prominent citizen.  At this point it is unknown where he is buried.  Much of his family is in Oakwood.  Some were removed from the old burying grounds which had been cleared for the railroad. Unfortunately, records do not exist for this time period. Perhaps Mr. Pierce’s name will show up one day after an old stone is made legible.  


This road saw much destruction and obliteration during the War of 1812.  It has been documented that at least 25 buildings were destroyed along the portage.  Inside many of these dwellings lived a hardy sort of person who knew the ins and outs of frontier life.  Here lived a blacksmith named Raymond, a wheelwright called John Davids, Oliver Udall, a farmer, William Chapman, a rope maker.   Many of the women and children had been sent down the road to Batavia or Canandaigua before the great conflagration.  But there were women and children who had stayed.  In fact Miss Reynolds and Miss Field, years later, recollected how when news of the invasion had finally come General Whitney sent a sleigh to their door and all of the children and provisions they could fit were hastily thrown in, finally the adults, and along with a cow they drove up the river to where the road branches off toward Batavia.  It certainly was a frightful time. 


The portage was also the sight of the great war encampments.  Battles were not fought here, but along this road the broken-hearted and the broken-bodied marched to and from battle.  It was a stretch of ground between the living and the dead—and quite appropriately, the place Judge Porter chose for a cemetery.  During the War of 1812, Fort Schlosser, at the upper end of the portage, was a store house surrounded by a light palisade. Many of the sick were brought to Schlosser and probably died there.  Various regiments, each numbering about 400 officers and men, with their strengths often depleted by sickness and desertion, marched from their camps between Fort Schlosser and Manchester to the Lewiston docks and over to Queenston where the first battle of the war was fought.  Among many of these men were Major Benajah Mallory’s 40 Canadian volunteers who hurried down from Manchester to fight the British.   


On December 21, 1813, a British detachment under Major General Phineas Riall burned practically every dwelling along the portage road.  Even as there was not much left following the devastation when the war was ended many settlers returned and built a city from the ashes; a city that would rival some of the greatest cities in the world.  Businesses grew and flourished and this cemetery was born in 1852.  Unfortunately, just a decade later Niagara found herself in yet another skirmish--one that deeply burned the heart from the Niagara frontier.  The portage saw many a hero pass through these black iron gates during this period.  In fact, the scribbles left behind in the Oakwood archives are notably sparse at times as even the trustees lost sons in battle.  Oakwood may hold some of the greatest numbers of Niagara’s Civil War dead. 

That dismal day in June of 1864 saw at least 100 Niagarans perish with Col. Peter A. Porter’s 8th NY Heavy Artillery Regiment.  Many are resting inside these gates.  The funeral of Lt. Edward Hawes drew large crowds and a volley was fired over the grave.  He was only twenty three and died in a battle which is considered to be the beginning of the Gettysburg campaign.  One of our greatest heroes is Col. Porter, himself.   The dashing young officer from Niagara, more poet than soldier, had turned down a more pleasant government position in order to bring his Niagara boys home.  In the end it was they who brought him home.  And one of these Niagara boys, Leroy Williams, lies not too far from his commander.  He won the Congressional Medal of Honor for risking his own life, crawling upon his belly to drag the Colonel’s lifeless body to Union lines.  It was written that although Colonel Porter’s funeral was one of the largest ever seen at Niagara, there were moments of silence in Oakwood Cemetery when the mourners paused to listen as the great Niagara, herself, cried out and witnessed the death of one of her greatest men. 


But there are other heroes that have passed down this road.  Not too far from Peter Porter’s grave is a little known woman lost forever to time in the Town Grounds, without even a simple marker.  Jane Lee came through these gates, down the portage, lifeless and encased like all the others.  A servant to some of the wealthiest Niagarans, she had been born a slave and lived to be over one hundred years old.  We hope that one day we can find where she rests and honor her life more conspicuously. 


It is inevitable that from within the gates of Oakwood we watch as today’s world passes us by.  In a busy carnival of colors and lights an Arby’s and a Planned Parenthood dot our horizon.  The exhaust from cars enters and chokes the sky like an ancient burning sacrifice.  But here, in Oakwood, not much has changed.  Of course, there has been the usual weathering.  A recent storm took down giant tree branches and pieces of Arby’s were tossed into the mix.  But a few Saturdays ago, dozens of Niagarans put it all back together and by Mother’s Day flowers and waving foliage outflanked any destruction that may have taken place.  It seems that there will always be battles drawn along this portage road.  Some places, like Oakwood, are meant for the ghosts of history and gracefully acquiesce to the onward march of time.