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WHY GO: The landscape of Dorchester County MD hasn’t changed much since the birth of Harriet Tubman, sometime around 1820. As her birthplace, it made sense to establish the Harriet Tubman Visitor’s Center here.
Threaded with rivers and tributaries, Dorchester County MD’s 1,700 miles of shoreline and farmland is best explored by car, foot, boat, and kayak.
With well-researched Underground Railroad sites, upscale accommodations, a well-known-to-birders nature refuge, great food, stunning scenery, and of course the new Harriet Tubman Visitor’s Center, this Eastern Shore county makes for a quietly compelling getaway. Follow along here.
Things to Do in Dorchester County MD
VISIT: Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitors Center, Cambridge
Opened March 11, 2017, and operated by the National and Maryland Park Services, this, and the Harriet Tubman Underground RR Byway are becoming the premier attractions on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The 17-acre park runs South to North – from Slavery to Freedom. You enter the property on the Southern End. Constricted and narrow, planted with tall vegetation, it represents uncertainty and the landscape that Tubman was forced to navigate during her escapes. Moving north, the land widens, the plantings thin out. Free at last.
The Visitor’s Center building is impressive and poignant as well. Environmentally built (LEED Silver), it’s divided into four pavilions, telling the story of Tubman’s life with a focus on her values: Faith, Family, Community and Freedom. Tubman was actually Harriet’s married name.
Araminta “Minty” Ross
Daughter of Ben Ross and Harriet “Rit” Green, she was named Araminta “Minty” Ross at birth sometime between 1820 and 1825. One of 9 siblings, three of whom were eventually sold off, her family was traumatized by separation and loss.
The lobby is a soaring, light filled space. It’s a counterpoint to the diminutive Tubman, whose bust, representing her image at age 50, sits on a carved wood pedestal at exactly her height – 5’.
The museum itself, envisioned by relatives and historians, is as accurate a portrait of the heroine as you’ll find anywhere. As with the surrounding parkland, visitors enter it through a narrow tunnel-like space, walking northward.
The first exhibit immerses you in Harriet Tubman’s world. There are photos of slaves working the fields, renderings of slave traders and white families at slave auctions, and projected images of the environment in which Tubman lived. Quotes by Tubman or her admirers add depth to each display.
“I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it. Then, I was not happy or content.”
She and her mother were the property of Edward Brodess who terrorized the young Tubman, forcing her outside in winter, without a coat or shoes, to catch muskrats.
Tubman’s Motivation To Escape
Brodess died in 1849, leaving his wife, Eliza, in financial straights. Eliza would surely have sold Tubman, then age 27, to a plantation in the South, a virtual guarantee that she would never see family again.
It was this knowledge that motivated her to escape and then return time and time again to rescue her family and friends.
Despite her head injury at age 13 (see Bucktown General Store below) and her small stature, Tubman was by all accounts, incredibly strong in body and mind. She made it to Philadelphia and then Cape May NJ where she worked as a domestic, saved money and built an Underground Railroad network to rescue others.
Tubman’s Rescue Missions
Tubman led at least 13 documented rescue missions, saving at least 70 slaves (former numbers have been inflated), and served as nurse, spy, and strategist during the Civil War. At the age of 41, Tubman carried out the Combahee River Raid under Union Colonel James Montgomery.
“Tubman had gained vital information about the location of Rebel torpedoes planted along the river from slaves who were willing to trade information for freedom. Because of this information Tubman was able to steer the Union ships away from any danger. She led the ships to specific spots along the shore where fugitive slaves were hiding and waiting to be rescued. At first many of the slaves were frightened by the Union soldiers’ presence, but Tubman was able to talk with them and convince them to come aboard.” – Blackpast.org.
In this way, Tubman rescued an additional 700 slaves.
Eventually making it up to Auburn NY, Tubman befriended suffragettes, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896.
She stayed in the public eye, speaking at conferences and conventions; a humanitarian and philanthropist until her death in 1913 at the age of 91. Visitor’s Center open daily 9-5, free.
DRIVE: The Harriet Tubman Underground RR Byway
The Harriet Tubman URR runs through much of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Download the Map Here or Narrated App (“You’ re on the Freedom Highway, child,” “Family roots stretch deep into the soil here”). Make a point to visit the following spots.
STOP IN: Bucktown General Store, Bucktown
Brochures call Bucktown Village Store the “site of the 1st known act of defiance in the life of Harriet Tubman.” Susan Meredith, wife of Jay – the 4th generation of Meredith’s to own this historic place since the end of the Civil War – keeps this story alive.
Walk in, and Meredith will first reveal artifacts found during restoration: an original newspaper announcing the $300 Reward for “Minty” and her two brothers, dog tags worn by slaves to identify their owners, a bill of sale for Linah (Harriet’s sister), and much more.
Lean up against the blue-washed wooden counter, concave and worn by thousands of such leanings over the years, mysteriously sliced in some places. Meredith is the type of person who wonders about such things: what were they cutting here?
Why are the floorboards so bowed to the left of the front door and not to the right? It’s easy, through Meredith’s surmising, to imagine Harriet Tubman walking through the door.
As was customary in the early 1800’s, Tubman was “leased” to a farmer, Thomas Barnett, up the road to harvest, comb, and weave flax. This one particular day, she had come in to the store for provisions.
Her parents named her Araminta (in Hebrew, it means “lofty,” in Greek, “defender”), and she was both. (Susan Meredith places a lot of emphasis on the meaning of names).
Tubman’s Head Injury
“Minty’s” overseer, Thomas Barnett, also in the store, demanded that she restrain a young boy to be whipped. Minty refused. She was ushering the child out the door when Barnett threw a 2 lb weight in their direction The iron weight missed him and caught Minty in the head. He took her home, laid her on her loom, and ordered her to work the next day.
It’s likely Barnett called Tubman “worthless,” as she tried to weave flax, blood pouring from her head. The injury left Tubman with “sleeping sickness”- a form of epilepsy or narcolepsy – during which, Tubman later claimed, “God spoke” to her. Store open “by chance or appointment.” Free but donations accepted.
STOP: Church Creek Area
Free blacks and enslaved men and women met at the piers from which timber and agricultural goods were shipped. These travelers brought news from away, and a secret communication – i.e. whisperings of “a boat’s coming tonight” – emerged from this mingling.
STOP: Madison – a Fishing Village
Harriet’s father, Ben, was a timber foreman on his owner’s property (he was manumitted at age 45), overseeing 40 other slaves. Harriet often worked alongside her father, chopping wood and developing the corded muscles that somewhat explained her legendary strength.
STOP: Stewart’s Canal – aka Parson’s Creek
Built by slaves and free men, this canal connected timber forests to the Chesapeake Bay. Tubman likely helped guide canal boats laden with timber; arduous and labor-intensive work.
You can’t miss this noteworthy building on the Choptank River – with its towering sail awning. Come in for helpful advice on what to do in the area, and for several exhibits on local life.
Step outside on the deck to see one of six murals in Dorchester County (3 in Cambridge alone), “Ode to Watermen” by muralist Michael Rosato, whose work appears in museums and offices around the country.
Goose on the Caboose in town is the second mural by Rosato, and exactly what it sounds like.
Walk on docks past working watermen boats to get to this replica built in 2012. The original stood a couple of miles upriver from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, when the Choptank was the “Route 50 of its time” – a transportation artery for oysters, steamboats and rumrunners.
Slave ships came up this river from the Chesapeake. One carried Harriet Tubman’s grandmother, Modesty Green.
Peer out the window and you can just imagine it. See several excellent exhibit here– stories about the Underground Railroad (all Tubman escapes followed the Choptank River to the north) and a clear-cut demonstration of how a Fresnel Lens works.
If you’re lucky, the docent on duty will be Jim Duffy, author of the wonderful Eastern Shore Road Trips and an upcoming Harriet Tubman Byway Companion.Lighthouse open for self-guided tours May-October daily, volunteer docents Friday-Sundays.
This one hour tour is jam packed with history and gossip, made even more entertaining by the older members of the West End Citizens Association, who serve as costumed guides. My docent was the feisty Marge Hull, who began the tour in Long Wharf Park.
Learn about the movements and motives of John Smith, who sailed up the Choptank, seeking an acceptable place to settle. Smith determined that the available fresh water, hardwood, temperate weather for farming, and friendly natives made this land ideal for colonization.
The British named the town in 1684. Large ships and schooners bound for England and South America were laden with timber. Ships from southern countries returned with pineapples and other exotic delicacies. These trades opened up Cambridge Maryland to the world.
The FDR Cambridge MD Connection
But, the Great Depression killed the town. In 1932, the boats stopped coming.
However, help was on the way. One of FDR’s first WPA Projects was the redevelopment of Long Wharf as a place to dock the Presidential Yacht, The Potomac, on the President’s tour of the Eastern Shore.
After FDR’s death, his ship was berthed here from 1946-1960. Now a special artifact serves as a permanent Roosevelt Memorial: the dummy smokestack that hid the elevator Roosevelt used to conceal his disability.
Walk up leafy High Street and learn stories about Governors, locals and ladies. Some historians surmise that Harriet Tubman’s brother, Sam, escaped from a prominent doctor’s Hight Street house, as their sister was a slave there.
Discover why a couple of homes were cut in half (money and disagreements, mostly). Hear (or read) a tale about a reviving corpse. And get an earful of evil slave-catcher Patty Cannon folklore (her trial was held in Cambridge).
The tiny cottages you see were actually law offices. It was unlawful for attorneys to practice out of their own homes, so these workaround structures proliferated near mansions.
You’ll take a detour onto Commerce St. to see the third Rosato mural, a magnificent Blue Heron, in back of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. – a retail and wholesale purveyor of fresh crabs and oysters. Now owned and operated by 4th and 5th generation – the Brooks family – visitors can stop in to buy fresh off the boat seafood. One hour tours run April- Oct every Saturday at 11am-noon, $10.
DRIVE: Blackwater Wildlife Refuge
A major migratory stop on the Atlantic Flyway, Blackwater Refuge is one of Dorchester County MD’s premier attractions, and known by birders the world over.
Drive the 4-5 mile road, past stalks of dead trees in brackish water, stands of Loblolly Pines, and cattail-rimmed ponds.
Pull over and walk the trails or observation boardwalks. You might observe Sika Deer, muskrat, otters, White Pelicans, Blue Heron, Merganser Ducks and an abundance of other birds and wildlife. Stop in at the Visitor’s Center, to get your bearings and ask questions. From there – you can see the new Harriet Tubman Visitor’s Center, which backs up to the Refuge. $3 at gate, Visitor’s Center open Mon-Fri 8-4, Sat/Sun 9-5.
DO: Kayak or Bike with Blackwater Adventures, Cambridge
You’ll travel through history and see an abundance of wildlife on narrated kayaking trips though these Dorchester County MD backwaters. Canoe and bike rentals as well.
Restaurants in Dorchester County MD
EAT: Bistro Poplar
If you’re coming from out of town specifically to dine in Dorchester County, you’re most likely headed to Bistro Poplar, considered one of the finest French Restaurants in all of Maryland. Locals are honored and truly amazed to have this caliber of eateries in town.
EAT/DRINK: RAR (Real Ale Revival) Brewing, Cambridge
Ten years ago, Cambridge was a desolate town. But within the past few years, that’s changing – partly because all of the interest in Harriet Tubman’s birthplace. But also by virtue of business owners like Chris Brohawn and JT Merryweather, who made their RAR Brewing a centerpiece of Cambridge downtown.
With its signatures, Nanticoke Nectar IPA and Groove City Hefeweizen and seasonals like Country Ride Pale Ale, Hyde IPA (they brew multiple versions), Strawberry Ten Layer Stout, and Bucktown Brown Ale, the duo bring in slews of locals and visitors.
They renovated this 1936 pool hall, which had gone under in 2006, exposing original brick and tin ceilings. The brewery moved here in 2013. A second business, the farm to table RAR Eats, opened in the space next door.
EAT: Jimmie & Sook’s, Cambridge
A “jimmie” is a male crab, a “sook” a female, and that pretty much gives you an indication of what this casual, fun Cambridge institution does well. Cream of Crab Soup is smooth and toothsome. Crab Cakes are golden brown with zero-breadcrumbs-all-crab.
EAT/BREAKFAST: Bay Country Bakery, Cambridge
Right on Route 50, it’s the only building festooned with a massive donut. In fact, this favorite of many is known as the “Home of the MegaNut” – a hub-cap sized pastry – that many can share. You can stop in for lunch as well – great Panini’s, salads, and fresh-baked bread await.
EAT: Local Favorites in Dorchester County MD
Two fan favorites off the beaten path – Old Salty’s – a pure crab shack at end-of-the-earth Hooper’s Island, and Suicide Bridge Restaurant in Hurlock, with two riverboats and awesome views.
Where to Stay in Dorchester County MD
After a $7 million redo, the 400 room Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, on 342 acres of Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Dorchester County MD, is back in luxe-lodging form.
During the school year, this Hyatt is mostly filled with business and government conferences. But come summer, it swarms with families hoping to reconnect and have fun. According to those who stay here, it delivers big time.
There are three pools (one with water slides, another featuring a nightly movie), award-winning Golf Course, a wildlife sanctuary, auditorium-size well-stocked game room, kayaking, cruising, and, splurgy spa: everything a family needs for a complete vacation in one place. To top it off, the waterfront setting is gorgeous.
Gone is the basket-weave furniture of yore, the outdated color scheme, the faded carpeting.
All rooms, newly clad in grays and Navy Blue, with updated design-forward furnishings and double Queen Beds (replacing the “Double” double beds), are refreshingly au courant.
Dining at Hyatt Chesapeake Bay
There are several dining options here, so you really don’t have to (ever) leave. Water’s Edge Grill serves three meals a day. Blue Point by the Marina offers fantastic views, fresh seafood, and dinner only. Dock’s Poolside is self-explanatory. Go to Eagles Nest – by the golf course, and Michener’s Library, at the foot of the lobby stairs, for cocktails by the fireplace, some live music, and a game of billiards on one of two tables.
The Sago Spa was renovated in 2012 and even locals book treatments here. Try the Signature Hot Stone Massage, and your whole outlook on life will change, at least for a few relaxed hours. Massage therapists are professional, attentive and capable of turning those shoulder knots to mush. Sago Spa also has dry and wet sauna’s and a quiet “Relaxation Room” with snacks, tea, and infused water. Open 10-6 off season and 9-7 in season.
Amenities at Hyatt Chesapeake Bay
It’s a major Hyatt property right on a celebrated body of water, so of course there are amenities aplenty.
18 Hole Keith Foster Golf Course that traverses the Choptank River.
150-slip Marina – boaters have full use of the Hyatt amenities.
Large Fitness Center with updated cardio and free weights.
The huge and hugely popular Game Room – coined “Captain’s Parlor”- has both Arcade and Table Games.
S’Mores by the outdoor “Grand Fireplace” every evening at 6pm.
Yoga on Saturdays in the summer – at 9am.
3 Pools – the massive indoor pool screens a movie every night when darkness falls and hosts lots of other fun events for kids including token dives and races. The outside Crescent (infinity) and Waterslide pools are jam packed in the summer season.
18-Acre Blue-Heron Wildlife Refuge
Other amenities include Putt Putt, a Frisbee Golf Course, Tennis, Basketball, Beach Volleyball, and jogging/walking trails.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day; Blackwater Paddle and Pedal offers on-site jet ski, SUP, kayak rentals and cruises on the Choptank River on their 46’ Charter Boat.
Room rates $179 per night midweek off season to $500 per night weekend peak season. Packages that include golf or breakfast available.
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