Jaunt: Cambridge, Maryland, to Washington D.C., via major historic sites of the Underground Railroad.
Distance: Approx. 320 km
Fuel: 1 to 1 1/2 tanks
Duration: 2 1/2 days
Prime Time: May is best for wildflowers and birds, but Chesapeake Bay is warmest in August — ideal for kayaking and boating side trips.
Despite what its name might suggest, the Underground Railroad had no trains. Rather, this secret network of back roads and labyrinthine waterways – not to mention a vast community of supporters – was used by abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the mid-1800s to lead fellow slaves on the perilous journey from Maryland to freedom in Canada. The network took on the lexicon of the railways as code: escaping slaves were “passengers” or “cargo,” hiding places were “stations” and guides like Tubman were “conductors.”
Today the route is dotted with idyllic colonial towns and wetlands that serve as a fascinating reminder of the growing pains of the New World.
Leg One: Cambridge, MD, and back (70 km)
Start your journey at the marvellously ornate Dorchester County Courthouse in Cambridge, Maryland. Built in 1854, this was once the site of the region’s slave market. When Harriet Tubman discovered that her niece, Kessiah, was to be sold at these markets in 1850, she undertook her first rescue and a legend was born.
Continue north on foot along High Street to see stately homes constructed from the profits of slavery. Two blocks north is The Nathan of Dorchester (410-228-7141; The Nathan of Dorchester), a replica of the trading ship once used to ferry goods and, on occasion, transport fleeing slaves along the railroad. From late April to early November, hop aboard for a two-hour cruise.
Drive southwest a couple of kilometres to connect with Race Street, and visit the Harriet Tubman Organization Museum (410-228-0401; Harriett Tubman) to learn more about her extraordinary life. Tubman made 19 visits to Maryland in the 1850s, freeing 70 slaves in the process. Later, when the American Civil War broke out, she fought for the northern army, becoming the first woman to lead a combat mission in the Civil War – during which she freed another 750 slaves.
Next, follow the MD-16 south 20 km toward Madison, to Joseph Stewart’s Canal. Hacked from the snake-infested wetlands by slaves of timber merchant Joseph Stewart, today the canal is a picturesque waterway lively with waterfowl. Nearby you’ll find the Stanley Institute, a one-time blacks-only schoolhouse dating from 1867 that is now a museum. Continue to the end of the canal, to the shipyards, where Harriet Tubman and her father once toiled.
Next, head southeast 34 km to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (410-228-2677; Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge). It was through dense marshes like these that Tubman and her followers had to pass, often at night. For a closer look, hire a kayak at the visitors’ centre and take a tour along clearly marked paddling trails. Non-paddlers can take Wildlife Drive, a 6-km paved road along Blackwater River.
Circle around the eastern edge of the sanctuary on your way back to Cambridge.
Good eats: Restaurants on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay tend to be rustic. Bistro Poplar (410-228-4884; Bistro Popular), where the menu is influenced by the Picardy region of France, is the exception.
Good sleeps: Spend the night at Lodge-cliff on the Choptank, one of the last remaining waterside inns housed in a 1900s mansion (866-273-3830; Lodge-cliff).
Leg Two: Cambridge, MD, to Vienna, MD (90 km)
Start your day by heading east 20 km along Golden Hill Road to Bucktown, Tubman’s birthplace around 1822 (her birthdate is unknown). She escaped from Edward Brodess’s farm in 1849 after praying for her owner to die (which he did). Many of the farms in the area have remained unchanged through the years.
At the intersection of Greenbrier and Bestpitch Ferry Road stands a yellow building that was once the Bucktown Store. On this site, a teenaged Tubman defended a fellow slave from a beating. She in turn was struck with a weight and consequently suffered seizures and “visions” for the rest of her life. Make sure to call ahead, as the Bucktown Village Foundation will open the store on request (410-901-9255).
And don’t miss Choptank Village: though it consists of no more than a half-dozen streets on the banks of the Blackwater River, this town was an important station on the Underground Railway. From here, Tubman’s parents’ home (another station on the Railroad) could be easily reached by paddling upstream to Poplar Neck.
Good eats: The name alone is worth making the journey to Suicide Bridge Restaurant (410-943-4689; Suicide Bridge Restaurant) in neighbouring Hurlock, 5 km north of Vienna. The crab cakes are reputed to be the best on Chesapeake Bay’s eastern shore.
Good sleeps: Stay at the Tavern House (410-376-3347; Tavern House), a 30-km drive southeast of Poplar Neck. Built in the early 1700s, this is one of the oldest buildings in Maryland and it has been renovated using ancient and often strange techniques (ask the owners about the plaster-and-hair drywall).
Leg Three: Vienna, MD, to Washington D.C. (160 km)
Rise early and head north 75 km to Lords Corner Road, near Greensboro, where a stone marker indicates the Mason-Dixon line – the historical border between the slave states of the South and the free North. At first, this line represented freedom for escaping slaves, but when the powers of slave hunters were extended to non-slave states in 1850, Tubman and her followers were forced to venture farther north to Ontario.
Head west to Scenic Byway 18 and meander through Grasonville, Chester and Stevensville, three historic towns in the heart of Queen Anne’s County ( Queen Anne’s Country), on your way to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital. Slavery was abolished here in 1865, with the signing of the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution.
Spend the afternoon at one of the Smithsonian Institute’s exemplary museums, such as the National Museum of African Art (202-633-4600; National Museum of African Art), an impressive collection originally housed in the home of Frederick Douglass. A former slave, Douglass published the abolitionist paper the North Star – named for the celestial compass point Tubman followed as she ushered slaves along the Underground Railroad to freedom.