The Underground Railroad was a train without tracks, but with a purpose as strong as today's mighty locomotives rushing on steel rails across America. It was a multitude of secret routes and safe houses used by runaway slaves escaping from bondage in the south to free states in the north and ultimately to Canada. While real trains carried the commerce that made a nation great, the Underground Railroad carried a cargo of hope leading to freedom and a new life at the end of the line.
A few years ago I rode that train - on a bicycle - on the final 285-mile route of the original Underground Railroad into Canada. It was part of a 48-day, 2,100-mile cycle tour from Alabama's Mobile Bay on the Gulf of Mexico to Ontario's Owen Sound on Lake Huron, mapped after three years of research by Adventure Cycling Association (ACA). Working with the Center for Minority Health at the University of Pittsburgh, the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, plus historians and descendants of escaped slaves, ACA developed a route and tour steeped in history and historic sites, cultural awakening, imagined drama and an emotional sense of what it must have been like to risk one's life in the pursuit of freedom.
Now, five years later, ACA has unveiled a new Underground Railroad Route, the 518-mile Detroit Alternate from Oberlin, Ohio to Owen Sound, Ontario. "Cyclists can now experience even more Underground Railroad landmarks and historically important communities," said Carla Majernik, Adventure Cycling's routes and mapping director. "The route also follows the Lake Huron shoreline to Owen Sound, which is an incredibly scenic ride."
Must-see stops include:
The Oberlin downtown historic district, Oberlin College and the Oberlin Heritage Center, which showcases the abolitionist and Underground Railroad history of the community.
In Adrian, Michigan, the Lenawee County Historical Museum houses thousands of documents relating to the UGRR, and the Laura Haviland Statue (100 E. Church St.).
In Detroit, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is the largest museum in the world dedicated to the struggles and perseverance of African Americans; the Historical First Congregational Church, also known as The Living Museum, offers the "Underground Railroad Flight of Freedom," a storytelling simulation of a slave's journey to freedom; and the Gateway to Freedom Monument at Hart Plaza on the Detroit Riverfront, which marks the crossing of thousands of freedom seekers into Canada.
A partner monument in Windsor, Ontario, is visible across the river. Known as the Tower of Freedom Underground Railroad Monument, this sculpture depicts the refugees' arrival into Canada and their overwhelming emotion upon encountering freedom.
A loop option to Windsor, Ontario takes in The Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, an absolute must-see for those traveling on the Detroit Alternate's Windsor Option. The Buxton Settlement was the largest and most successful planned settlement for fugitive slaves and free blacks in Canada. It's 1800s homes, buildings, school house and cemetery creates a memorable experience.
In Chatham, Ontario, visit the First Baptist Church Chatham where American abolitionist John Brown held the last in a series of clandestine meetings to plan his "slave rebellion."
Cycling on to Dresden, Ontario, you can visit the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site/Josiah Henson House, which was the home of Rev. Josiah Henson, a fugitive slave who found freedom in Ontario in 1830 via the Underground Railroad and was the reference for the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
If you're riding the Underground Railroad and arrive in its terminus Owen Sound terminus on the first weekend in August, you can join the 150th anniversary of the city's Annual Emancipation Day Celebration, honoring the former slaves who road the Underground Railroad to Canada, arriving at the BME church and freedom. It would be a great way to end your own ride to freedom on ACA's full 2,100-mile Underground RR route or just its new 418-mile Detroit Alternative.
For more info about ACA's Underground Railroad routes or any of its 46,000 miles of bike route tours, plus a world of cycle touring info, spend some time at www.adventurecycling.org