Tom Horton

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Explore Harriet Tubman Country

Bike offers freedom to go beyond ‘road closed’ signs

Land is not only more complex than we know. It is more complex than we can know but endless fun in the trying.

Explore just a single patch of farm field and woods on different days, in different seasons, with a birdwatcher, a developer, a historian or a soils scientist, a farmer, a child, a beagle. So many countries you’ll see, and no way to see it whole — like looking directly into the sun.

This piece begins as it began before I traveled the landscape with Harriet. It was to be simply about a cool little bicycle loop through a sweep of Choptank River countryside on Maryland’s mid-Eastern Shore. I call it the “dead end” route — for highway signs that often only apply to cars; a cyclist with a little ingenuity can make it through — small, two-wheeled victories in a four-wheeled world.

The little Caroline County river town of Choptank, once a steamboat stop and commercial fishing port, is as good a starting place as any. There’s a modest marina there with parking and bathrooms. North of town just a few hundred yards you pick up the Poplar Neck Road, where signs proclaim the road is closed.

You’ll have to dismount and walk your bikes a few minutes across the abandoned, but sturdy wooden bridge over Marsh Creek near its mouth on the broad Choptank. A little memorial of plastic flowers marks where two children drowned while their families fished from the bridge last year.

The next mile or so of road is packed dirt, quite passable on bicycles with touring, or road tires. A racing bike with 23-28 cm tires might have problems depending on the condition of the road; but it’s nice walking.

It’s a lonely, lovely stretch of gently rolling farm and forest up the Poplar Neck, several thousand acres lying roughly between Marsh and Skeleton creeks to the south and north, and the town of Preston to the east. On the west runs the Choptank, largest river of Delmarva, meandering some 70 miles from the Bay nearly to Dover and Camden in Delaware.

(I’ve never figured out why some lands around the Chesapeake, bounded by water on three sides, are called necks and others peninsulas. From the Latin, “peninsula” means nearly an island, while “neck” from the Greek means an isthmus, which none of our necks are.

Virginia’s Bayshore has two peninsulas and one neck between the James and Potomac — and darn if I can see the difference. Delmarva is a peninsula, but almost all its countless sub-peninsulas are called necks. Then, there is the region around Annapolis, the Broadneck Peninsula.)

Poplar Neck Road becomes paved and swings east (right turn) into Marsh Creek Road, which becomes Sunset Boulevard as it enters the village of Preston. You’ve come about seven miles.

A right on Main Street (Route 331) takes you by Katie Mae’s, a decent lunch and breakfast spot. You continue through town until the gray stone Immanuel Lutheran Church on your right, where you’ve got a couple decisions to make.

The first is recommended. Go straight past the church half a mile or so to the restored Linchester Mill, where grain has been ground at the headwaters of Hunting Creek since early colonial times. The current mill operated from 1847 until the 1970s. I went there with my Mom to get cornmeal.

The mill is open for tours many weekends (call 410-479-0655 or 2055). But you can see some of it through the windows, and it’s surrounded by a pleasant park, picnic area and nature trail that are always open. It also features a beautifully restored country schoolhouse once located on the Choptank.

Now the harder decision. I usually go back and turn left onto Back Landing Road by the Lutheran Church, which leads you to another abandoned bridge across Hunting Creek. But this one’s decking is partly rotted out and you’ll have to shoulder carry the bicycles across. It’s only about a mile from Preston, so you could check it out, enjoy the views of creek and tidal marsh, then opt for a safer route.

You’d pedal back past Linchester Mill and make the first right turn onto East New Market-Ellwood Road (MD Route 16). Then take Beulah Road right to Backlanding Road and go left. A couple of miles later take a right onto Wright’s Wharf, then right onto Hunting Creek, which winds back to the river and the town of Choptank — about 15–18 miles in all.

It’s a serene, un-trafficked spin through the little-visited interior of Delmarva, a peninsula everyone thinks they’ve seen; but really most just know the slivers around the peninsula’s edges — Ocean City, St. Michaels, Oxford, Rock Hall, Blackwater, Rehoboth, Assateague, Onancock and Chincoteague.

Back at the marina in Choptank is a historical marker I’m sure was not there during the 1950s and 60s as I grew up on the Shore — a time of segregated schools and racist policies, and only a few decades removed from an era of lynchings. It commemorates Harriet Tubman, a slave who conducted an astounding 14 daring escapes on the Underground Railroad for around 80 fellow slaves during the 1840s and 1850s.

She was long a heroine to African Americans, but not taught to us white kids that I recall. Nowadays, as work proceeds on a Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument on the Eastern Shore, it seems history will most associate the Delmarva Peninsula with two escaped slaves—Tubman and Frederick Douglas—karmic justice, perhaps.

Last Christmas, as ducks splashed down in the starry, frozen silence and a barred owl hooted, and dogs bayed from a distant farmhouse, I stood with Bay Journal photographer David Harp along Marsh Creek where my bicycle route began.

The North Star, Polaris, hung low in the sky directly over the dirt track heading up the Poplar Neck. Because it does not move in the sky, the North Star has been a guide to voyagers for as long as humans have traveled — perhaps even migrating animals long before that.

It was around Christmas 160 years ago, as night gathered, that Harriet Tubman hid with her brothers and other fleeing slaves — seven in all — in a corncrib on the neck. They would travel all night, cold, wet, muddy, half-freezing some of the time, navigating by that North Star to freedom in Pennsylvania.

They would pass arduously and at constant risk of their lives from slave catchers, armed patrols and specially trained dogs, through the same landscapes of my pleasant bicycle route.

After Poplar Neck, we don’t know their precise path — it was, after all, called the “Underground” railroad for a reason. Quite possibly they were supported by Quakers who lived along Marsh and Hunting creeks. They might have moved east through Preston and Federalsburg, then into Delaware and north through Camden, DE, a prominent station on the secret railroad. Or they might have followed the Choptank River north, passing near Denton and Greensboro in Maryland on to Sandtown and Camden in Delaware.

This is all Tubman country, these lands between the Choptank and Nanticoke rivers, zigzagging through the heart of Delmarva, the less-peopled interior of the peninsula, which remains less-traveled to this day.

Tubman herself had fled to freedom from around Cambridge, MD, several years earlier, one of thousands of slaves who made their way through the Underground Railroad. Once was enough for almost all; but Tubman would risk her life to return time after time, leading family members and others to freedom as far away as Canada.

Rewards for her “passengers” ran as high as $40,000 in today’s dollars. Aside from constant risk of capture, the landscape I would now describe as pastoral presented thickets of greenbriar, swamps, prickly gumballs (escapees often had poor, or no shoes), and sharp needlerush.

The 5-foot tall Tubman packed a pistol, partly for self-defense. She also used it to persuade passengers they could not endanger the group by turning back. Tubman would recount in her old age: “I never run my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

So if you want a good little bike ride, do my abandoned bridges route. If you want to travel through some fascinating history at the same time, read up on Harriet Tubman before you go. (I recommend Kate Clifford Larson’s biography: “Bound for the Promised Land.”)

Identifiable parts of Tubman country remain: the Mount Pleasant Cemetery along Marsh Creek Road where free blacks and slaves gathered and escapees might well have been met by those helping them; a giant tulip poplar on the back of Paulette Green farm in Poplar Neck, soaring above the canopy, old enough to have witnessed escaping slaves passing nearby.

You can easily expand the route south and north between Cambridge or Choptank and Camden, all using Delmarva back roads, all traversing the landscapes of the Underground Railroad.

Indeed, I’ve been thinking that in all the plans going on to develop the new Harriet Tubman National Monument and related tourism attractions, we’re missing an opportunity by not adding a Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad bike route to the mix.

Nationally, an Underground Railroad bike route from Memphis, TN, into Ontario has already proven to be quite a hit.

The best roads for bicyclists to follow are already contained in a larger map of Delmarva published by Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experience (DLITE). Order the maps from www.delmarvalite.org, or from the Worcester County, MD, tourism office in Snow Hill.

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Tom Horton

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

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