The Harriet Tubman Byway on the Eastern Shore

Looking at the fields and creeks of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, considering that whites could stop blacks for any (or no) reason, recognizing the obvious that GPS or even maps were not available--that Harriet Tubman managed to make her way to freedom is amazing. And to consider that she completed the journey more than a dozen times, especially after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, is more than amazing. 

My three-day trip in "Tubman country" with my friend Martha mostly followed the Harriet Tubman Byway, a route through Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania that follows escape routes used by Tubman and others on the Underground Railroad. The route took us on roads and into towns that we never would have visited otherwise. When I usually visit the Eastern Shore, I have the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean as my frames of reference in this area. But, I learned, it was the rivers that defined daily life and aided or prevented escape--especially the Choptank. While a few places require imagination to re-create their past, such as once-bustling wharves and crossroads, others feel eerily like Tubman could emerge at any moment. 

Day 1: Cambridge Area

 Maryland DNR photo, taken on a far sunnier day than the day we visited.

Maryland DNR photo, taken on a far sunnier day than the day we visited.

We began in pouring rain at the new Harriet Tubman Center in Church Creek, Maryland. We could quickly run for shelter inside the center and then back in our car. Tubman and others often spent days out in the elements, worried that every noise was a slave-catcher.

The center's exhibits focus on Tubman and a network that included African Americans and whites, including William Still, Thomas Garrett, and others in Maryland, Delaware, and points north. (With the exception of Tubman, women do not feature prominently, but rather as "wives of...." Whether this reflected reality or whether future research will uncover more female involvement as active members to be discovered.)

This quote from Rev. H.H. Garnet is a reminder of the currency of the topic. Garnet also escaped from slavery in Maryland and became a minister and abolitionist in New York.

 On display at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center

On display at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center

A few of many stops along the way:

  • A marker at the former Brodess Farm commemorates where Tubman spent a good part of her youth and young adulthood. She was often "hired out" by Edward Brodess, which probably helped her get a better lay of the land.
  • Bucktown Store where biographies about her life describe how a white man threw a two-pound weight, aiming for someone else but hitting her in the head to result in lifelong health problems. The building is open by appointment; perhaps as this Byway becomes more traveled, it and several other spots along the way will be more actively interpreted. 
  • Dorchester County Courthouse in downtown Cambridge, with a marked-off area where slave auctions took place. The injustice of selling humans at a courthouse was apparently not considered.

Travel notes:

It takes about 2.5 hours from the D.C. area to the center. We had lunch at Kay's, a restaurant in the small Cambridge-Dorchester airport, on Bucktown Road between the store and Route 50. Dinner in downtown Cambridge at Jimmie & Sooks. Night spent in a quiet airbnb rental that backed one of the many creeks.

Day 2: Cambridge to Camden

Our day began at the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge--a planned hike became a drive on a four-mile wildlife route when we had more rain. The route ends near the Tubman center. As a staff member explained, one advantage of the center's location is that it evokes the land as it was, and, with its proximity to the refuge, not worry about commercial development popping up within sight.

A few of many stops along the way:

  • Preston, and the Linchester Mill. According to the printed guide, "The mill was situated amidst a secret network of safe houses: the Levertons, the Hubbards, and the Kelleys on the west side, and Harriet Tubman's parents Ben and Rit Ross at Poplar Neck on the east side." A man was working inside the mill and invited us in to take a look. When we asked about the Leverton house, described in the guide as owner-occupied private property, we learned that he is the "owner-occupant"! He began restoring the house when it was slated for destruction; the connection to the Levertons and the Underground Railroad came later.
  • Choptank Landing and Gilpin Point, both once-thriving wharves. We tried to imagine people quietly escaping into the night.
  • Between Preston and Denton, the 1850s home of James Webb, a free black, and his family. There is no documented evidence of Webb's involvement in the Underground Railroad, but a short history points out that the structure, including a shallow cellar, reflects a typical home for many people who worked the land, both free black and white.
  • Outside of Denton, the William Still Interpretative Center is a work-in-progress, as of this writing; the guide indicates it is as more finished than it is. Still was born free in New Jersey, but his mother and sisters escaped from the area. In Philadelphia, Still kept a hidden record of the people he helped to freedom, one of the few documents from this time.

Travel notes:

With driving and lots of stops, going from Cambridge to Camden took us most of the day, even though it is less than 70 miles. Lunch at Market Street Pub in downtown Denton, kitty-corner to the Caroline County courthouse. Dinner at Seafood City in Felton, Delaware. Night spent in an airbnb Queen Anne restored home on Camden's Main Street.

Day 3: Camden to New Castle

Our airbnb host pointed us to two places in Camden connected with abolitionism: the Zion AME Church on Center Street and the Camden Friends Meeting House on Camden-Wyoming Avenue. The biography by Catherine Clinton Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom also mentions two Camden UGRR locations: the Coopers (down the street from our airbnb house) and the Brinkleys (now a patch of grass up the street, it was torn down). 

Again, a few other stops:

  • Dover, where we dipped back into the Revolutionary War era with a walking tour around the Green, but also a stop inside the Old State House. Here, legislators debated--and each time defeated by 1 vote--measures to abolish slavery. Here, too, a free black named Samuel Burris was convicted of helping slaves escape, and his punishment included a fine, jail time, and sale into slavery. ("Abolitionist gold" facilitated his purchase and eventual re-freedom.)
  • Odessa, where the Historic Odessa Foundation has carefully maintained a number of historic homes, including the Corbit-Sharp House. Here, Mary Corbit's role in hiding at least one fugitive slave is highlighted.
 The intrepid travelers in Odessa.

The intrepid travelers in Odessa.

  • New Castle, our last stop, although the Byway route goes to Philadelphia. The eventual goal is to find stops through the rest of Pennsylvania and New York State to Canada.

Travel notes:

We took busy Route 13 from Camden to Dover. From Dover to Odessa, we took Route 9, which passes through the marshes and fields near the ocean, as an alternate. Lunch in the garden at Cafe Newcastle in New Castle. From there, it is about 3 hours back to the D.C. area; although the GPS pushed us to I-95, going through Middletown on Route 301 and across the Bay Bridge on Route 50 took about the same amount of time and postponed the interstates as long as possible.