Like the mighty cataracts that symbolize the city of her birth, Mamie C. Simonson was a force of nature.
Mrs. Simonson, who died at 87 Wednesday, lost her first battle with Robert Moses, the state’s most powerful urban planner, when he demolished her Niagara Falls home to build a parkway. But nearly 60 years later, through a one-woman campaign, Mrs. Simonson had Moses’ name removed from the highway.
That’s one of the legacies left by Mrs. Simonson, who died in her Lewiston home.
But Mrs. Simonson, who never held elected office, rarely thought about the man dubbed the “master builder,” according to her daughter, Sarah Stokes.
“It was just part of our family history,” Stokes said, regarding her mother’s attitude over having had their home seized through eminent domain. “There was no big resentful feeling about it.”
One might not blame her if she had harbored resentments.
Mrs. Simonson was a married young mother of three when she and her late husband, Marvin, first took on Moses. In the late 1950s, Moses was on a mission to dismiss the Simonsons and their neighbors from their Whirlpool Street homes and businesses, not far from the Niagara gorge, by seizing the properties for the parkway that was later to become Moses’ namesake.
The Simonsons’ main fight was over having been low-balled by the state in their attempts to get a fair market price for their two-story abode.
Mrs. Simonson and Moses never met, according to her son, Lee, a former Niagara County legislator. However, each was well acquainted with the strong will of the other. Lee Simonson said his mother recalled that Moses, after being taken for a drive on Whirlpool Street more than a half-century ago, was enraged to discover that the Simonson’s two-story abode was the last house that remained standing on the block.
“It was relayed back to her that when (Moses) drove by he said, ‘who owns that house?’” Lee Simonson recalled his mother telling him.
“And they said, ‘that’s the Simonson house, and we just haven’t been able to agree on anything with them,’ and (Moses) said, ‘get that house down now.’ So, the next day or the day after, he gave a direct order to destroy their house,” Simonson added.
Mrs. Simonson and her husband sued the New York State Power Authority to receive a fair market value for their house, with Marvin “Si” Simonson having success representing himself against lawyers for the state, while also earning their grudging respect in the process.
The couple went on with their lives. Both were Rochester Institute of Technology trained photographers, and together they built a thriving photography business in which they took thousands of wedding, family and baby portraits. Mrs. Simonson, an engaging personality, also became recognized for her charitable works, including recruiting and organizing volunteers to collect money for local soup kitchens at the Artpark Tuesday night concerts that raised over $100,000.
“She never lost any sleep over what Robert Moses and the Power Authority did to them,” said Lee Simonson.
Still, perhaps, unbeknownst to his mother during that time, was a piece of unfinished business to which she would eventually attend, and it wasn’t about revenge, but justice, he added.
“It started when my sister and her were driving around. My mother did not drive. My sister mentioned, why is that name still there, Robert Moses Parkway?” Lee Simonson recalled.
He said it came up matter-of-factly, perhaps because they were turning onto the parkway. At that point, Lee Simonson said his mother realized that there was no reason for the parkway to continue bearing Moses’ name, particularly because it was not illuminating about who he was nor did it tell tourists anything about the scenic route they were on.
That prompted Mrs. Simonson to send a handwritten letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo requesting that the parkway name be changed. Her campaign culminated in her drafting, with the help of her son, a formal resolution to change the name to “Niagara Scenic Parkway.” Otherwise, Lee Simonson said, the mission was entirely his mother’s.
“I never really called anybody. I did help her in terms of just telling her what the process was. She wrote all of her own letter. I really wasn’t involved in it at all,” he said.
And, perhaps improbably, Cuomo on June 9 came to Niagara Falls to announce the name change, as well as Power Authority plans to fund a $42 million project to remove a 2-mile stretch of the parkway to create not only open space, but trails and a scenic overlook. In a statement Friday, Cuomo remembered Mrs. Simonson as “a force for change.”
“She was by my side when we renamed the roadway, the Niagara Scenic Parkway this past June. Niagara Falls was fortunate to have Mamie as a tireless champion who won the battle to restore public access to the iconic gorge that the parkway had cut off for far too long,” Cuomo said.
How did she manage what local politicians for years couldn’t?
“I think she just eventually wore them down, because that’s the way my mother was. She was always the last man standing,” Lee Simonson said.