"Harriet" the movie, which hit theaters in November 2019, tells the story of the legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who fled from slavery, then risked capture and re-enslavement, even lynching, time and again to help many others escape as well along the Underground Railroad. Much of this important history took place in the Eastern Shore of Maryland where Tubman was born. Thirty-six historically significant sites have been connected by a self-guided scenic byway from Cambridge to the Delaware border, through rural landscapes similar today to what Tubman would have known. Traveling this route offers a chance to learn about this extraordinary woman and to gain insight into her life and times.
Harriet Tubman was born in the early 1820s on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. Barely five feet tall, this dynamic woman spent her first 28 or so years in slavery, finally plotting her escape to freedom in 1849. She fled with her two brothers, both of whom got scared and returned. But she persevered, making her way north, and, with the help of the Underground Railroad, landed in Philadelphia. There she worked as a housekeeper, but she became determined to gain freedom for her loved ones as well. Over the course of the next 10 years, she returned 13 times to the Eastern Shore to help more than 70 friends and family members escape, including her aging parents (some say up to 300 people). “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger,” she said.
By now a national hero, Tubman went on serve as a Union army spy, a suffragist, and a humanitarian, finally settling on a New York farm. She passed away in 1913, but her legacy lives on, including a WWII Liberty ship named after her, and the U.S. Treasury’s announcement in 2016 that her image would replace that of Andrew Jackson—a slave owner—on the $20 bill.
The State of Maryland established Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway in 2013 along a network of roads that follows the route to freedom that Tubman took many times with her “passengers.”
Stops to Make
Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center (Cambridge, Maryland)
This small, volunteer-run museum, which began in the 1980s, has exhibits and a short film focusing on Tubman’s life. Out back, a striking mural depicting Tubman, by local artist Michael Rosato, was completed in 2019.
Long Wharf Park (Cambridge, Maryland)
Ships from Africa and the West Indies transported kidnapped Africans here, where they were sold on the waterfront. From here, the Choptank River ambles north, an important route along the Underground Railroad that Tubman and her “passengers” probably used many times.
Dorchester County Courthouse (Cambridge, Maryland)
In 1850, Tubman’s niece, Kessiah Bowley, and her two children were being sold at auction in front of the courthouse, with the highest bidder being Kessiah’s husband, John Bowley, a freeman. Before the official could collect payment, Bowley whisked the three to Baltimore, where Tubman helped lead them all to freedom. The Italianate-style courthouse that stands today was built in 1854, after the previous structure burned in 1852.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center (Cambridge, Maryland)
Opened in 2017 near the site where Tubman was born, worked, and worshipped, the center has four buildings, each one progressively lighter and more open, representing progress in the journey north toward freedom. Interactive exhibits showcase life in the Choptank River area; the Underground Railroad; and Tubman’s legacy today. There also are walking trails and a memorial garden, with three different habitats reflecting the varied terrain Tubman faced as she guided her passengers out of harm’s way. The site, operating in partnership with the National Park Service, is located on the grounds of Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park.
New Revived United Methodist Church (Taylors Island, Maryland)
Established in 1876, this historic African American church was a stop along Tubman’s Underground Railroad. It’s still an active church.
Bucktown General Store (Cambridge, Maryland)
This authentic 19th-century country store is where, around 1835, Tubman is believed to have defied authority for the first time (and received a blow on her head that affected her the rest of her life). Today it’s a museum featuring historic artifacts, and historic tours and interpretation of this part of Tubman’s life are offered.
Linchester Mill (Preston, Maryland)
A re-created 19th-century village in Preston gives a glimpse into life during Tubman’s time. The historic gristmill, which still contains the original machinery, was a hub of Underground Railroad activity. With several safe-houses nearby, enslaved people, freeman, and abolitionists could gather around the working mill and covertly communicate without raising suspicion.
James H. Webb Cabin (Preston, Maryland)
A hand-hewn log structure built around 1852, this cabin represents typical housing for most African Americans of the time. This particular one, built by a freeman farmer, James Webb, for his enslaved wife and four children, stands near Tubman’s possible Underground Railroad route from Poplar Neck.
Tuckahoe Neck Friends Meeting House (Denton, Maryland)
Built in 1802, this Quaker meeting house is one of five in Caroline County whose members supported the local Underground Railroad.
Adkins Arboretum (Ridgely, Maryland)
The woodland and marshland landscapes preserved at this park represent the challenging terrains Tubman faced as she and her passengers made their way north. Four miles of walking trails interlace the site.
Christian Park (Red Bridges) (Greensboro, Maryland)
This shallow crossing at the headwaters of the Choptank River, in Christian Park, is very likely where Tubman crossed into Delaware. While bridges were tempting, freedom seekers opted to wade across rivers to evade anyone in pursuit.
Tips for Traveling the Route
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway travels 125 miles through Maryland’s Carolina and Dorchester Counties, with many sites clustered around Cambridge. You could drive the whole thing in a couple of hours, or spend a couple of days, taking it all in. It’s a peaceful, quiet region, with small towns and little traffic, ideal for a weekend getaway. Download a self-guided driving guide here, an audio guide here, or the app from GooglePlay or iTunes. Admission to all sites are free (though donations always are welcome). Get more information and an interactive map here.
The Tubman Byway continues on into Delaware and Pennsylvania, ending at Philadelphia—Tubman’s final destination upon finding freedom; find out more here.
Cambridge has a good collection of hotels, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts, and there are a few other accommodations sprinkled along the way. Albanus Phillips Inn in Cambridge is a historic B&B, and Turnbridge Point B&B in Denton gives an authentic small-town-USA experience.
Restaurants can be difficult to locate along the byway’s backroads. Your best bets are Cambridge and Denton (and perhaps pick up picnic fare to bring en route). This is blue crab, rockfish, and oyster country, so try to find a good waterfront restaurant—Old Salty’s Restaurant on Hoopers Island and Suicide Bridge Restaurant in Hurlock are longtime favorites.