Cycling the Underground Railroad

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Messenger photo by John Crutchfield Participants in a 2,200-mile adventure bicycling tour recently camped overnight in London. Their route loosely traces the Underground Railroad by which slaves escaped to freedom in the north. On the trip were: (from left) Tony Rock of Brooklyn, NY; Dick Ward of Danville, Calif.; Greg and Monica Lyall of Anchorage, Alaska; Zoe Smoak and Ron of Spartanburg, S.C.; Bob Camillucci of Hood River, Ore.; Ric Wilson of Anchorage, Alaska; Bob Lawrence of Sandusky, Ohio; Jan Brackett of Gardiner, Maine; and Nora Shew of Anchorage, Alaska.
Messenger photo by John Crutchfield
Participants in a 2,200-mile adventure bicycling tour recently camped overnight in London. Their route loosely traces the Underground Railroad by which slaves escaped to freedom in the north. On the trip were: (from left) Tony Rock of Brooklyn, NY; Dick Ward of Danville, Calif.; Greg and Monica Lyall of Anchorage, Alaska; Zoe Smoak and Ron of Spartanburg, S.C.; Bob Camillucci of Hood River, Ore.; Ric Wilson of Anchorage, Alaska; Bob Lawrence of Sandusky, Ohio; Jan Brackett of Gardiner, Maine; and Nora Shew of Anchorage, Alaska.

(Posted May 26, 2014)

By John Crutchfield, Messenger Correspondent

Most of us would love to go on a long vacation, but how long would be too long? How does 2,200 miles on a bicycle sound?

A dozen cyclists on a 45-day trip from Mobile, Ala., to Niagara Falls recently made a stop in London. The trip was not entirely recreational. The purpose of the ride was to retrace the path of escaped slaves from the slave market in Mobile to freedom at the Canadian border.

The 5th annual Underground Railroad Tour was organized by the Adventure Cycling Association, which promotes bicycling vacations throughout the North America. The non-profit organization, formed in 1973 and headquartered in Missoula, Mont., boasts over 46,000 members.

“We have bicycling historians on this trip and bicyclists who like history,” said Meredith Watson of Lake Tahoe, Calif., ride co-facilitator.

The group was on Day 30 when they rolled into London on May 13. The participants filtered in throughout the afternoon while Watson unpacked the van and established a campsite near the shelter house behind the Madison County Senior Citizen Center.

“We’ve passed a lot of landmarks along the way—Shiloh, Fort Blakeley, sites in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and now Ohio,” she said. (Bicycling) is a wonderful way to travel. And you can imagine yourself in the position of these escaping slaves—the sights, the smells, the weather. At 10 miles per hour, you notice more things.”

Watson said the group had been averaging 60 miles per day on the trip.

For rider Ric Wilson of Anchorage, Alaska, the trip has special meaning.

“I’ve always been curious about the Underground Railroad. I wonder if any of my relatives used it. They could have come along this very route,” he said.

Over the course of the trip, Wilson said he talked to many people about the Underground Railroad.

“A lot of people we talked to didn’t know about the route. The history of the Underground Railroad is underground itself,” he said.

Records were not kept of those who traveled the Underground Railroad. Anyone aiding runaway slaves could be fined and imprisoned, according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Wilson said it is not uncommon for African American families to know nothing of their history back more than a couple generations.

Wilson’s wife, Nora Shew, also is making the trip. She said she is enjoying the weather.

“Summer hasn’t started yet back home,” she said of Alaska.

Wilson and Shew made their first long distance bike ride together in 1979 from Eureka, Alaska, to San Francisco, Calif.

With a big smile, Shew said, “Our kids are in college now, so we decided to take off.”

While in London, like in many other places along the route, the riders learned more about the Underground Railroad. The Friends of Madison County Parks and Trails lobbied the Adventure Cycling Association to bring the ride through London this year because of its historical significance to the Underground Railroad.

London resident Frank Slagle shared some of that history with the riders. According to Slagle, the bike path that passes through London was once part of the Little Miami Railroad. The railroad was a corridor for runaway slaves. Slagle believes the route led from the rail line up Oak Run to his great-grandfather’s farm. His great-grandfather was an abolitionist and a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. From the farm, fugitive slaves were carried after dark by wagon to Mechanicsburg and other communities as they made their way north.

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