Follow the Life of Harriet Tubman Through Capital Region USA

Harriet Tubman Byway, Maryland
Bestpitch Ferry Bridge along Harriet Tubman Scenic Byway
Bestpitch Ferry Bridge along the byway
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, Stewart's Canal, sunset, view, water,  Maryland
View of Stewart's Canal from the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park
Kayak the waterways of the scenic byway
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Harriet Tubman Byway, Maryland
Bestpitch Ferry Bridge along Harriet Tubman Scenic Byway
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, Stewart's Canal, sunset, view, water,  Maryland

In honour of the movie Harriet, this self-drive itinerary will take you through America’s Capital Region to visit the places where Harriet Tubman lived, sites associated with the Underground Railroad, Civil War, and African American history and culture, and filming locations for the movie. The itinerary also travels parts of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway, a 125-mile scenic drive through the beautiful Chesapeake Bay that follows the secret network of people, places, and routes that provided shelter to escaping slaves.

Day 1: IAD to Washington, DC (26 miles)

Arrive at Washington Dulles International Airport. Travel to Washington, DC by hired car, taxi, or via the region’s Metro bus and rail system.

Begin your tour with a visit to the region’s newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Opened in 2016, the museum is located on the National Mall and is the only national museum dedicated solely to African American history and culture. The museum has 3,500 artefacts on view, including a shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria. The Slavery and Freedom exhibit traces slavery from 15th century Africa and Europe through the founding of the United States, culminating with the Civil War and Reconstruction period.

Afterward, continue exploring the National Mall with a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial and then walk to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. End your day in the historic U Street neighborhood, home to the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum. The memorial honours the African American soldiers who served in the Union Army during the US Civil War while the museum tells the story of these heroic troops.

The U Street neighbourhood was also known as Black Broadway in the early 1900s, predating Harlem, New York as a national centre of African American art and culture. Experience an iconic DC dish, the half-smoke sausage at Ben’s Chili Bowl before taking in a performance at one of the neighbourhood’s many theatres and concerts halls.

Day 2: Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia (10 miles)

Begin the day with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Formerly Arlington Estate, the grounds here were occupied by the Union Army during the Civil War and were also the site of Freedman’s Village, a planned community for freed slaves. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is a 624-acre shrine to America’s veterans. Visit Arlington House (closed for renovation until January 2020), witness the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and see the eternal flame at President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite.

From Arlington, travel seven miles south to Alexandria. Occupied by the Union Army during the Civil War, Alexandria was a haven for runaway slaves. Manumission Tour Company offers several guided heritage tours of the city, including the “Freedom’s Fight in Alexandria” walking tour which focuses on Alexandria’s pre-Civil War history. Key sites to explore on the tour or on your own include the Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery, Freedom House Museum, and Alexandria Black History Museum.

Finish your day along the scenic Alexandria waterfront where you’ll find numerous restaurants and shops to explore before retiring for the evening.

Day 3: Fairfax County, Virginia (30 miles)

Spend some time this morning on the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. This 710-mile-long trail passes through the Capital Region, tracing the Potomac River corridor. The many creeks, shadowed banks, varying depths, and lookouts along the river made it an integral part of the Underground Railroad. Today, visitors can hike, bicycle, or paddle sections of the trail to experience the route used by many to escape slavery. The trail also passes through or near several historic sites including the next one on your visit, George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.

Mount Vernon was the home of America’s first president, George Washington, as well as hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children. The estate’s special exhibit, Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon (open through September 2020) explores the stories of those enslaved at Mount Vernon and provides insights into the evolution of Washington’s opposition to slavery. If time allows, explore the Slave Memorial and Slave Quarters or take the Enslaved People of Mount Vernon tour.

From Mount Vernon, travel eleven miles south to Gunston Hall, the plantation home of George Mason, another founding father. Tour the mansion to learn about the lives of the people, both free and enslaved, who lived here. Afterwards, head outside to explore the kitchen yard, slave dwelling, garden, and archaeological site to learn more about the lives of enslaved Africans during this period of US history.

Overnight in Woodbridge (20 miles from Gunston Hall), where you’ll find numerous accommodations, dining, and shopping, including Potomac Mills Mall, Virginia’s largest outlet mall.

Day 4: Richmond, Virginia (87 miles)

Travel south to Richmond, Virginia’s capital city. Richmond is home to numerous historic sites associated with the Underground Railroad and African American history including the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, the Black History Museum & Culture Center of Virginia, and the American Civil War Museum. The Richmond Slave Trail is a self-guided tour that traces the city’s history as the busiest slave market on the East Coast. The trail connects with the 1.25-mile-long Riverfront Canal Walk featuring narrated historic canal cruises (seasonal), historic markers, murals, and more than 75 restaurants and 40 attractions within walking distance.

Day 5: Richmond to Charles City and Petersburg (75 miles round trip)

Explore some of the filming locations for Harriet. From Richmond, travel southeast along the banks of the James River to Berkley Plantation. The exterior of the estate was used as the Auburn, New York home of Senator William Seward in the film. Onsite, costumed guides will lead you through the 1726 Georgian mansion, sharing stories of the first Thanksgiving, the plantation’s Harrison family, and the Civil War. Afterwards, stroll through the grounds and gardens.

From Berkley Plantation, travel west to the city of Petersburg. The Old Towne district’s cobblestone streets, Union Train Station, and other spots along Cockade Alley were filmed for the movie. Travel three miles west of the Old Towne district to Petersburg National Battlefield, which preserves sites related to the Civil War Siege of Petersburg.

Return to Richmond for the evening.

Day 6: Baltimore, Maryland (150 miles)

Travel today to Baltimore, Maryland, and enjoy a day in Maryland’s largest city before beginning your journey along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Arrive Baltimore late morning. The Inner Harbor in the heart of downtown is ideal for exploring on foot. The National Aquarium is a must-see attraction while the Harbor place and The Gallery complexes are crammed with restaurants and elegant shops. Significant African American history and culture sites in Baltimore include The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, and the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

Day 7: Cambridge, Maryland (87 miles)

Cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Maryland’s Eastern Shore and continue to Cambridge. Your first stop is the Cambridge Visitors Center at Sailwinds Park for an overview of the Harriet Tubman Byway. Next, visit the Dorchester County Courthouse, once the site of slave auctions and trials. Nearby is the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, dedicated to preserving Tubman’s legacy as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Take time to view the Harriet Tubman mural on the side of the center. Painted by muralist, Michael Rosato, the powerful image has gone viral on social media and the story picked up by many national media outlets. Afterwards, enjoy pleasant dining, galleries and shopping in downtown Cambridge.

Day 8: Cambridge, Maryland

Get an early start this morning to explore the 27,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is home to the largest breeding population of American bald eagles on the East Coast outside of the Florida Everglades and early morning hours are an ideal time to view the birds and other wildlife that reside or migrate to the refuge. Land and water trails make it easy to commune with nature. Wetlands throughout the Refuge provided protection to freedom seekers who followed the rivers northward, hid in the forests and marshes, foraged for food and struggled through water to throw pursuers off their trail.

Adjacent to Blackwater, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park & Visitor Center is the next stop on your journey. This 17-acre historical park features a history museum with exhibits, an audio-visual program, museum store, seasonal interpretive programs, and a nature trail.

Head east to Bucktown to visit the village store where, as a teenager, Tubman performed her first act of defiance by attempting to help an enslaved person avoid capture. An overseer struck her head with a two-pound block of iron, leading to lifelong health issues. At the time, Bucktown was a busy community with two stores, a shopkeeper’s home, blacksmith shop, farms, and shipyards. Today, it’s a starting point for guided historic and nature tours, as well as bike, canoe, and kayak rentals.

Day 9: Annapolis, Maryland (82 miles)

Continue your exploration of the Underground Railroad Byway today. From Cambridge, head north to the East New Market National Historic District, stopping for antique shopping along the way, and then taking a self-guided walking tour amid fine examples of 18th, 19th and 20th century architecture. Continue to Linchester, home of an historic grist mill that employed both free and enslaved African Americans. There is also a strong Quaker tradition in this area. A Quaker meeting house, which once stood on the site of present-day Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, was believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Continuing north to Preston, stop to see the circa-1852 James Webb Cabin, the only surviving log dwelling on the Eastern Shore known to have been constructed by an African American. Built on ballast stones from ships, the cabin stands along what might have been an Underground Railroad route used by Harriet Tubman and her parents.

In Denton, visit Courthouse Square, the site of a slave market and jail that held Underground Railroad conductors, and the Museum of Rural Life, featuring exhibits about the Underground Railroad and local African Americans.

From Denton, you can turn west to learn about Frederick Douglas, the famous 19th century orator and statesman who began his autobiography, “I was born in Tuckahoe', near Hillsborough, and about 12 miles from Easton.” See where Douglas embarked on a journey through Annapolis, Baltimore, St. Michael's, and other points along the Chesapeake Bay, finally escaping enslavement to become an abolitionist leader.

Nearby is the Adkins Arboretum, a 400-acre native garden and preserve dedicated to promoting the appreciation and conservation of the region's native plants along five miles of paths featuring streams, meadows and rich bottom-land forest. The landscapes are reminiscent of those encountered by travellers along the Underground Railroad.

Continue to Annapolis, Maryland’s capital city and the ‘Sailing capital of the USA.’ Dine in a waterside tavern before retiring for the evening.  

Day 10: Washington Dulles International Airport (60 miles)

Spend the morning exploring Annapolis. Shop historic Main Street, take a tour of the U.S. Naval Academy, and enjoy lunch at a waterfront restaurant. In the afternoon, travel to Virginia to take the early evening flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to the UK.

Related: 
Scenic Drives
Outdoors & Nature
Tours & Trails
City Adventures
History & Culture

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