UGRR Detroit Alternate: Part 4

February 23, 2012


This is the fourth and final in a series of 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 is particularly rich in lore of the Underground Railroad.

The Windsor Option of the Detroit Alternate 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 North American Black Historical Museum is located in Amherstburg, which was a primary entry point into Canada for those seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad. The museum’s chief exhibit leads visitors on a trek through time, from the days before the slave trade in Africa, to the harrowing oversea voyages that blacks captives endured en route to America, to the horrors of being enslaved in a strange land … to their escapes and dangerous journeys to Canada. Many of the facility’s artifacts were donated by the descendants of former slaves. Also located here is the 1848 Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church National Historic Site, a fieldstone chapel representative of the numerous small Underground Railroad churches that were constructed in Ontario.

Up the road from Windsor, Puce (now part of Lakeshore, incorporated in 1999) houses the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum. The family museum was founded by the descendants of John Walls and Jane King Walls, who came to Ontario -- where John acquired the nickname of “Freeman” -- by way of the Underground Railroad from Troublesome Creek in Rockingham County, North Carolina. The site served as a terminal of the railroad, with many escaped blacks stopping here. Modern development of the site began in 1976, when Windsor dentist Dr. Bryan E. Walls, a great-great grandson of John Freeman Walls, started digging into his genealogy. The result was his self-published novel The Road that Led to Somewhere, which traces his forebears’ courageous overland journey to Canada. Reportedly, a government official read the book, saw to it that a plaque was made to mark the property and explain its significance, and the project continued gaining steam from there.

The Buxton National Historic Site & Museum in North Buxton commemorates the Elgin Settlement, another final destination for many who escaped slavery in the U.S. South. Founded in 1849, the settlement flourished under the leadership of Rev. William King, a native of Ireland, growing into a self-sustaining community of between 1,000 and 2,000 residents. One of four organized black settlements in Ontario, it was built on a foundation of agriculture, around which sprang up other businesses, including a grist mill, brickyard, and blacksmith shop.

Several miles north of Buxton is the older black settlement of Chatham, home to the First Baptist Church Chatham. Here, on May 10, 1858, abolitionist John Brown conducted one in his series of secret “conventions” aimed at establishing an independent republic within the borders of the United States, and planning for guerilla raids in the South to liberate enslaved blacks. About a year and a half later came Brown’s ill-fated attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Nearby is the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, featuring such exhibits as The Black Mecca -- which certainly is what these towns were (in 1857, the Rev. R.R. Disney of the African Methodist Episcopal Church described Chatham as “the colored man’s Paris”).

Up the road a piece, just west of Dresden, is the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site and Josiah Henson House. The five-acre grounds and museum bring alive the past through artifacts, slide shows, and building tours of the settlement of Rev. Henson, said to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel.

It's been a pleasure presenting these special posts about the new Detroit Alternate, and I hope you'll get a chance to ride it some day soon. 


Image by Adventure Cycling Association


This is the fourth and final 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.


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