ALONG THE UNDERGROUND RAILWAY
I keep returning to the Eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay for yet another travel experience. This time I am relating my ancestral family connection to the Underground Railway started by Harriet Tubman during the years preceding the Civil War.
Tubman was a black slave from a small town in Dorchester County, Maryland. She is credited with assisting 70 slaves to escape into the north to seek freedom. Her guidance over 11 years beginning in 1849 along the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay has historically been designated the Underground Railway.
Why “railway”? The metaphor relates to conductors, engineers and secret tracks and tunnels used to guide the escaping slaves along the path to freedom in the North. The distinctive element of the system was the cooperation of a chain of sympathetic farmers and abolitionists along the route that could conceal the fugitive slave in a pit underneath the floorboards of a cabin.
My connection with the Underground Railway is indirect because the oldest remaining cabin believed to be a stop on the route is located on property in Preston, Maryland that my ancestors settled in 1705. The cabin was never owned by a member of my family since the parcel of land on which it’s located was purchased in 1852 by a free black by the name of James Webb.
My pioneer family in what was then Dorchester County owned several parcels of land in that area according to the plat maps examined at the Caroline County Historical Society in 2009. I was on a genealogical search for the roots of my family in Maryland and found several land sites and cemetery connections. The earliest record of Edgells in Dorchester County was 1676.
The Webb Cabin at that time of my visit was barely standing and in derelict condition. It was owned by the Historical Society as part of its documentation of the Underground Railway passing through Dorchester and Caroline Counties. The curator told me this was the only cabin remaining of that period in the area and would be the centerpiece of the Society’s project.
In March 2017 I found a travel article in The San Diego-Union Tribune with a photo of the Webb Cabin fully restored and open to the public. Interest in Harriet Tubman and her work has recently been popular due to the proposal to use her image on the $20 bill. A best-selling new book by Colson Whitehead about the Underground Railway is also being dramatized by Amazon for a TV series.
The Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland was settled only a few years after the establishment of the Virginia colony at Jamestown in 1607. Because of this region’s isolation from the mainland until bridges and tunnels were built in the mid-20th century, the land still retains a colonial environment.
A feeling of Yankee independence combined with 400 years of strong religious beliefs created old-fashioned basic values among the residents of the Eastern Shore. Many families go back generations as farmers and watermen (there is scarce else to do except the new tourist trade). People of the earth and sea show a sensible attitude to the casual visitor.
Crabbing and oyster dredging are still a major industry sustaining the traditional watermen of the Chesapeake and their array of fishing craft. The picturesque skip jacks, bugeyes and skiffs were replaced by a unique longboat with a small wheelhouse and a narrow rear deck piled with crab cages or a metal dredging net. Each inlet with a deep water port, especially off the rivers, has a small fishing village with a cluster of white Victorian clapboards or salt box cottages and sometimes a seafood processing plant.
For birders, Chesapeake Bay is a major stop-over on the Atlantic Flyway of migratory birds on their way north sharing space with resident osprey and bald eagles. The Blackwater National Wildlife Sanctuary near Cambridge has hiking trails and a drive-through route bringing birders up close to the nesting and resting spots. The visitor center gives you tips for the best viewing areas
Access to the Eastern Shore is the Bay Bridge out of Annapolis for casual touring of pleasure boat marinas, fishing villages and more colonial history. St. Michaels is a good base for touring the area. The maritime museum and boat excursions on Chesapeake Bay get the visitor into a lifestyle that has sustained the Eastern Shore for four centuries.
A selection of quaint B&BS and a few upscale inns are located in St. Michaels. From there day-tripping to Cambridge, a short car ferry ride to Colonial Oxford and the sights at Tilghman Island over a drawbridge can fill several days of touring in the Choptank River region.
Springtime on the Eastern Shore is an ideal time to visit and avoid the humid summers and the tourist crowds. St. Michaels displays a full array of colorful spring flowers of tulips, daffodils in front yards decorated with Easter baskets and traditional egg trees (the branches display strings of colored eggs). It’s a colorful and quiet time to savor Eastern Shore hospitality combined with a lesson in colonial history.
For oyster and soft-shell crab aficionados, there is no place better than Chesapeake Bay. Once you have eaten crab cakes there, any restaurant elsewhere claiming “authentic” Maryland crab cakes never make the mark.
Travel to the Eastern Shore is convenient with a non-stop flight from San Diego to Washington-Baltimore Airport and a short drive to Annapolis. Here a meal in the colonial Middleton Tavern at the harbor starts you on a journey of seafood feasting. Before crossing to the Eastern Shore, take a tour of the Naval Academy and learn how our naval heroes have served us since the days of John Paul Jones, whose tomb is in the huge church decorated with Tiffany windows.
A spring break in Annapolis and the Eastern Shore takes advantage of fair weather, less crowds and most impressive, the burst of spring bloom. At various times in April, dogwood, and even cherry blossoms, mix with tulips and daffodils. Enjoy the casual lifestyle and experience colonial history without too much driving.