UGRR Detroit Alternate: Part 1

February 2, 2012


The new Detroit Alternate of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route (UGRR) follows a meandering route covered by two map sections, from Oberlin, Ohio, to Owen Sound, Ontario. Section 1 of the Detroit Alternate heads northwest from Oberlin, curving around the west end of Lake Erie as it continues into Michigan, passes through Detroit, and enters Ontario, ending in the town of Sombra after skirting the western and northern shores of Lake St. Clair. (Note: The main UGRR enters Ontario at the opposite, eastern end of Lake Erie, in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls vicinity.)

The legacy of the Underground Railroad is rich along the Detroit Alternate, which branches off from the main UGRR at Oberlin, a place of division in more ways than one. The settlement was founded in 1833 by a pair of Presbyterian ministers discouraged by what they believed to be a virtual absence of solid Christian values and morals among the settlers moving ever westward. Their new town, named after Jean-Frédéric Oberlin -- a French minister and missionary the men admired -- would be a place of living and learning for those dedicated to the Biblical commandments.

The community was conceived as integrated from the very start, and in 1835 a youthful Oberlin College was among the first institutions of higher learning in the United States to accept African-American students. Among the college’s notable graduates was abolitionist John Mercer Langston, who became the first African American to earn a seat in the U.S. Congress, representing Virginia beginning in 1888.

Because of its liberal, all-inclusive climate, and the type of people attracted to Oberlin, the Oberlin area evolved into a center of the abolitionism movement. By the early 1850s, Oberlin was a key station on the Underground Railroad with thousands of freedom seekers settling there or passing through on their way to absolute freedom in Canada. Oberlin remained a relatively safe place for escaped slaves until 1858, when a newly elected Democratic state legislature overturned an Ohio state law that resulted in strong enforcement of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This opened the door to slave hunters from the South coming in and legally extraditing escaped slaves, returning them to the “owners” from whom they had escaped.

An event that directly fired up the Civil War has ties to Oberlin, where the name of abolitionist John Brown echoes through the annals of time. Around 1805, when Brown was a young child, his family moved from Connecticut to nearby Hudson, Ohio, and Brown’s father served for several years on the Oberlin College board of trustees. Ultimately, a trio of Oberlinians gave their lives as a result of their participation in Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Due to its immediate proximity to Canada, many residents of the southeastern Michigan region played vital roles in the operation of the Underground Railroad. At least seven loosely defined Michigan-to-Canada routes along the Railroad have been identified, including one that ran from Toledo to Detroit, by way of the Michigan communities of Adrian, Morenci, Tecumseh, Saline, Ypsilanti, and Plymouth.

In many instances, it was women -- specifically, Quaker women -- who led the way for abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. “Nationally and in Michigan, women were at the forefront of creating groups opposed to slavery,” writes historic preservationist Carol E. Mull in her comprehensive, The Underground Railroad in Michigan (McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010). Adrian had its share of such heroines. Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, for instance, who arrived in Michigan in 1831 from Philadelphia. In October 1832, Chandler organized the Logan Female Anti-Slavery Society in the Quaker community of Logan, which later would be called Adrian. She died of a fever just two years later, still a young woman.

Another woman, activist Laura Smith Haviland, like Chandler, was a Quaker and a member of the Logan Society. But she was a bit too outspoken for the sensibilities of her Quaker Friends. Rather than conform to their expectations, she ultimately withdrew -- and persuaded her parents and several others to do the same -- from the Quaker Society. These individuals aligned themselves with the group most active in abolitionism, the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Haviland herself was so involved in the Underground Railroad in and around Adrian that a southern slave owner reportedly offered a $3,000 reward for her capture. In 1837, she and her husband founded a free school for the children of former slaves, one of the first educational institutions in the state to welcome African American girls and boys. She also helped establish the Refugee Home Society, where fugitive slaves were offered temporary homes across the international border in Windsor, Ontario.

A marker commemorating Haviland is found at the Raisin Valley Friends Meeting House in Adrian, where her father was the first pastor and where Laura is buried.


Image by Adventure Cycling Association


This is the first of four in a series of Guest Posts about the Detroit Alternate of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route (UGRR) by Michael McCoy, Adventure Cycling's media specialist. Mac, who wrote the Field Notes for the UGRR -- from which these posts are adapted -- also compiles the organization's twice-monthly e-newsletter Bike Bits and organizes the Bike Overnights program. Previously, from March 2009 through January 2012, Mac posted weekly at Biking Without Borders.


Mac, Media Specialist February 11, 2012, 1:58 PM

Anonymous, thanks for writing. If you read part 3 (scheduled for next Thursday), you will see that we have the Windsor Option, which takes in those very towns you mention (Buxton, Dresden...) And part 4 will describe some of the UGRR sites along that route--Buxton National Historic Site, Josiah Henson House, etc. --MM

Anonymous February 11, 2012, 6:32 AM

It's unfortunate that the plan is to end in Sombra - so many fugitives of slavery found freedom in nearby Ontario areas such as Buxton (near Chatham) and Dresden... Too bad you can't work the route from Sombra to Dresden and Buxton to end in Windsor.Check out the

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