The marshes and woodlands south of Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, have long been a source of native cypress and loblolly pines. Before the Civil War, black slaves did much of the log cutting, and one of those slaves had a daughter named Araminta. “Minty” was born in Madison and grew up in Bucktown, on her owner’s farm, helping her father in the forests.
In 1849, she escaped north. Not content to simply enjoy her freedom, Minty returned to the Dorchester County woodlands 13 times, each time “conducting” friends and family back north to freedom. At least 70 people followed Araminta Ross — now known as Harriet Tubman — along the skein of trails, paths, and safehouses called “The Underground Railroad.”
One of Maryland’s newest state parks, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center, serves as a portal for exploring Tubman’s world and the forces that molded her and drove her to risk her life so many times.
The park presents a Maryland perspective on Tubman and the Underground Railroad resistance movement and serves as a key destination on the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. It also is the administrative center for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program and the Harriet Tubman National Monument. In total, there is a mosaic of approximately 25,000 acres of federal, state, and private lands managed by the National Park Service.
Set to open on Harriet Tubman Day, March 10, the park encompasses about 17 acres and features a 10,000-square foot LEED Silver-rated visitor center, a legacy garden, and an open air pavilion with a stone fireplace. The visitor center design includes a “living roof” and maximum use of permeable roads and paths.
Telling the story
Everything about the innovative visitor center helps tell the story of moving northward to escape slavery and using the land to aide that escape.
“The buildings are representational,” explained ranger Angela Crenshaw. “It has a north/south orientation; you come into the south and head north.
“You enter the building in the present, right now. It’s emotive and evocative, a walking trail through the building and its exhibits. It’s an immersion experience that interprets Harriet Tubman’s faith, family, community, and the landscape.”
That Dorchester County landscape taught Tubman how to get along in the woods and back country.
“She learned outdoor survival and skills from her father, the tree cutter,” said Crenshaw. “She was comfortable in the woods; she knew how to interpret the landscape and learned survival.”
The new state park appends a human dimension to the wildlife-focused landscape in nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
“We are happy about the state park opening,” said Marcia Pradines, the refuge director, “and are looking forward to tying the wildlife refuge elements to the cultural elements at the park.
“Everything is interconnected — the refuge, state park, national park. We can enjoy the resources and understand the cultural and natural history. We welcome the opportunity to understand how the landscape affected Harriet Tubman.”
The new visitor center also features a gift shop, information desk, research library, and exhibit space. Outside, a walking path through the legacy garden encourages interpretation, quiet reflection, and meditation.
Landscaped with native plants, the garden presents growth throughout the year, but reaches its peaks with spring blooms and autumn colors. The path through the garden is part of a 3/4-mile trail that offers views of the park and Blackwater refuge.
“Harriet Tubman knew the marshes of Blackwater,” said Crenshaw, pointing toward the adjacent wetlands. “The land is largely as it was; not much has changed. Now, it will look the same for as long as the parks exist.”
For more information:
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: fws.gov/blackwater
Dorchester Co. Tourism: tourdorchester.org
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park: dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands