Road Trip

On the Trail of the Underground Railroad in Maryland

Sunday, January 27, 2008

WHERE: Montgomery County.

WHY: An 1820s slave cabin, freedom seekers' footprints and a dose of Quaker goodness.

HOW FAR: About 25 miles from start to finish.

Long before bustling interstates and Beltway jam-ups, Montgomery County's roads led to freedom.

In the 1800s, the rural county was a thriving hub of the Underground Railroad, the network of abolitionists who helped tens of thousands of slaves flee bondage. Much of the activity in Maryland originated in Sandy Spring, a town settled by Quakers in the 1720s.

Today, you can arrive in Sandy Spring the same way many slaves did -- on a bid for freedom through the thickets and streams of the nearby woods, now part of the Underground Railroad Experience Trail. The trail, which opened in 2003, stretches a little less than two miles. Along the way, visitors will encounter nine points of interest, including the natural spring that inspired the town's name. Though an active village, Sandy Spring appears frozen in time, with well-kept homes dating from the 18th century and its spiritual core, the Friends Meeting House, still intact.

In these parts, slaves on the run followed the only main artery between Georgetown and Frederick, along what is now Route 355. The road travels through Rockville, where "railroad conductor" Josiah Henson -- whose autobiography inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" -- toiled for 30 years as a slave on Isaac Riley's farm. You can stand on the spot of Adam Robb's Tavern, where Henson worked as a boy.

Oral tradition holds that many places in Rockville, such as a basement crawl space in Christ Episcopal Church, may have harbored fugitive slaves. With few written records, much knowledge of the Underground Railroad comes from local lore -- a testament to its success, says Anthony Cohen. He is the founder of the Olney-based Menare Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving Underground Railroad sites. In June near Germantown, Cohen will open the Historic Button Farm Living History Center, a restored 1850s-era plantation where visitors will be able to try their hand at life as a slave.

Stepping into a slave's shoes also may put 21st-century frustrations into perspective. Cohen remembers meeting a woman who dreaded congestion on Rockville Pike until she learned that slaves traveled the same road to escape captivity. "It lessens the pain to know that this was a route to freedom," he says. "It's a source of inspiration."

-- Christine Dell'Amore

© 2008 The Washington Post Company