February 16, 2012
This is the third in a series of four special posts about the new Detroit Alternate of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route (UGRR). The alternate follows a meandering route covered by two map sections, from Oberlin, Ohio, to Owen Sound, Ontario. Section 2 of the Detroit Alternate heads north from Sombra, Ontario, paralleling the eastern shores of Lake Huron, ending at Owen Sound. This section also includes the Windsor Option, which leads from the shores of Lake Erie at Kingsville, Ontario, along the peninsula through Windsor, then east to North Buxton and Chatham, before working its way northwest to join the main route at Sombra. The Windsor Option in particular is rich with Underground Railroad history.
Even before it was declared illegal in Canada in the late 1700s, the practice of slavery was minimal there, largely a result of the short growing season in much of the country. According to In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience (a project of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), Canada first became a destination for freedom seekers after 1772, when England proclaimed that any runaway slave crossing the international border from the United States would automatically be free. This was later bolstered by the Upper Canada Abolition Act of 1793, which granted freedom to any former slave entering specifically what is now the province of Ontario.
However, it wasn’t until after the War of 1812 that a substantial number of African Americans began making their way to Canada. The country earned a reputation as the “Promised Land” -- a nickname more commonly used after the institution of slavery was banned in all the British colonies by way of the British Imperial Act of 1833. It’s reported that during the ensuing two decades, between one thousand and two thousand freedom seekers entered and resettled in Canada every year.
The rate of migration into Canada increased even more after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in the United States. The act gave slaveholders from the South the authority to come north and retrieve escaped slaves, who until then believed they had found liberty in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. By the time the Civil War erupted, an estimated 30,000 fugitive slaves had settled in Canada.
Flash forward 150 years. Today, though many of us think of Canada as the Great White North -- a place of hockey players and frozen toes -- the country does boast pockets of relative warmth and sunshine with soils ideally suited for the growing of wine grapes. Among these is the area along the northern shores of Lake Erie, and nearby Pelee Island, located about 15 miles off the Canadian mainland.
Pelee Island is a worthy stopover on the ferry ride that takes cyclists from Sandusky, Ohio, to the beginning of the Windsor Option at Kingsville, Ontario. The largest island in Lake Erie and the southernmost inhabited point in Canada, the island sits at a latitude of approximately 42 degrees north, about the same as the Oregon-California border; or, going farther afield, a latitude similar to that of Provence, France, and Italy’s Tuscany region.
Pelee Island Winery is the oldest and one of the largest private estate wineries in Canada, with roots dating back to the 1860s. The company’s product is distributed not only throughout Canada, but in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. The grape varieties grown and harvested are the typical whites like chardonnay and chenin blanc and reds such as merlot and Cabernet sauvignon.
To the north of Pelee Island on the mainland, not too many miles east of the ferry landing at Kingsville, is the community of Leamington. The town serves as the gateway to Point Pelee National Park, globally recognized for its bird and monarch butterfly migrations. The latter are drawn by the island’s abundant milkweed plants, the monarch caterpillars’ only food source. The park is a UNESCO designated Wetland of International Significance, and, though it boasts one of the smallest land areas of any Canadian national park, it attracts upwards of a half million visitors every year, primarily due to these migrations.
Several-miles-long, Point Pelee is a narrow, triangular sand spit protruding into Lake Erie that contains a unique mosaic of habitats: marsh, Carolinian broadleaf forest, treeless grasslands, and ever-changing sand beaches. From April through October, a tram offers rides to what is descriptively known as “the tip” of the point. September is the best time to see the monarch butterflies, before they continue their migration south to the Sierra Madre of Mexico. Point Pelee’s name derives from the French pointe pelée, meaning “bald point,” the same word used to name the active volcano Mt. Pelee on the Caribbean island of Martinique.
Image by Adventure Cycling Association
This is the third 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.