The new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, which just opened on March 10, 2017, serves as a gateway to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. The Visitor Center is a two-hour drive from suburban Maryland. My husband and I were excited to introduce our daughters, 12 and 16, to the world of this inspirational heroine.
The Visitor Center is a model of green design with bio-retention ponds, rain barrels, vegetative roofs and lots of windows. The legacy garden features native plants and there is a tiny hiking trail.
When you first enter the Visitor Center, stop by at the information desk to get a Junior Ranger Activity Book. After you complete the guide, you will receive a Park Service patch. In the lobby is a bronze bust of Harriet Tubman, created by Brendan O’Neill, Sr. The bust sits on a pedestal mounted on a 460 year-old Wye Oak.
Begin your tour in the auditorium. The current film features the two-hour opening ceremony of the Visitor Center with Governor Hogan and Senator Cardin. The highlight of the film, which is often replayed, is an eerily realistic portrayal of Harriet Tubman by re-enactor Millicent Sparks. The Life and Legacy of Harriet Tubman, a 10 minute orientation film, will replace the opening ceremony in late 2018.
The first thing you see when you enter the exhibit space are projections of images of slavery. The exhibits tell the story of Harriet Tubman from her birth in Dorchester County in 1822 to her death on March 10, 1913. There is a replica of her cradle made from a sweet gum tree and of the corn crib where she and her brothers hid before escaping in 1854. A number of bronze sculptures of Tubman include her as a baby with her mother, as a young girl catching muskrats, and as a grown woman in a boat during the Civil War. Quotes by Tubman adorn the walls. There are also displays about her fellow abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass. Of course, Harriet Tubman is best known for leading 70 slaves toward freedom. She was also a Civil War spy and nurse, abolitionist, and advocate for the disabled and the aged.
A museum shop offers Tubman related merchandise including some children’s books. A number of free, helpful brochures and booklets are available in the lobby, including a Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway Driving Tour Guide and a dining guide to nearby restaurants.
The Visitor Center took less than an hour to explore and is not a destination on its own. It houses no original artifacts. However, it pairs perfectly with the adjacent Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, one of the sites on the driving tour. This 28,000-acre refuge can be explored by foot for $1 per person or by car for $3. The Blackwater Visitor Center has a gift shop, a touch table, water fountains and restrooms. The native garden is lovely and we saw tons of hummingbirds at the feeders. We drove through the refuge with frequent stops and saw great egrets, blue herons, and turtles.
The Harriet Tubman Visitor Center is also a great first stop for all the other sites along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Free audio guides for the driving tour are available online. The Byway travels 125 miles through the Eastern Shore through Delaware all the way to Philadelphia, where Tubman first found freedom. Unfortunately, the Harriet Tubman Museum is closed on Sundays so we missed it. This museum has videos, exhibits, and art inspired by Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad but no original artifacts. We did see the site of the Brodess Farm, where Tubman grew up, now just a marker and sign. We also saw the Bucktown Village Store, the site of Tubman’s first act of rebellion. When she refused to tie up a fellow slave for an overseer, the slave broke free. The overseer threw a two pound weight at the male slave and struck Tubman in the head instead, almost killing her. This incident resulted in seizures for the rest of her life. Altogether, there are 45 stops on the Railroad Byway including a one-room schoolhouse, a cemetery, an arboretum, and the Dorchester County Courthouse, which once had slave auctions.
Emily’s Produce, a farm and market 5 minutes away from the Visitor Center, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily is a great spot for lunch. We had $3.95 sausage biscuits and $1.95 pepperoni rolls. There is a cute playground, a tic tac toe board, corn hole, a checkers board with potato checker pieces. Kids will also love the goats, chickens, ducks, ducklings, and rabbits in the side yard. For dinner, we went to Ocean Odyssey, 10 minutes away in nearby Cambridge. My daughters were thrilled with their traditional steamed crabs, $5 each for jumbos. Kids meals are available for $7 with one side and a drink.
Our day on the Eastern Shore was the perfect combination of history, nature, and local food.
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Restrooms and Water Fountains: Two water fountains. The family restroom has a changing table.
Photo #1 courtesy of Sarah Meyer. Photo #2 courtesy of Harriet Tubman UGRR Byway.