But it doesn’t have to be like that. Driving tours have received a significant upgrade in recent years: These days, you’re likely to be following an app containing interactive maps with pinpoint directions, video clips that go deeper into specific topics on demand, and narrators who offer compelling stories that bring the past to life with music and sound effects, instead of dry recitations of facts.
Guided driving tours are the perfect middle ground between being led through a historic town by a guide in a tricornered hat and flipping through an online guide, trying to make sure you’ll see everything you’re looking for. Traveling in a car allows for the tour to cover a wider geographic area, opening up more territory for visitors to explore. And it goes without saying that although tours come with a map and itinerary, there’s no need to strictly hew to it — if you see an interesting restaurant or park, you can always pull over to check it out.
And, right now, while museums and cultural attractions are beginning to reopen their doors, driving tours allow visitors to stay in a bubble: Instead of walking through exhibits with other (possibly asymptomatic) humans, on these historic routes you’ll either be inside your own car or enjoying fresh air at designated stops, taking in views of marshes, farmland or cemeteries and churchyards. They offer a view of the world that you won’t find while scrolling lazily through Netflix yet again.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway
You probably won’t tackle the Harriet Tubman Underground Railway Byway in a day: There are 125 miles of roads wandering through Maryland’s Dorchester and Caroline counties, and another 98 miles in Delaware, with 45 total stops between the two. But if you have a day, or even a weekend, the first 20 stops, split between Cambridge, Md., and the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge about 20 minutes south, offer an engrossing look at freedom, bravery and life before the Civil War.
The Byway’s planning guide asserts that “more than a century after her death, Harriet Tubman would still recognize” many of the landscapes and locations featured along the Eastern Shore route. After hours of driving around grassy marshlands and crystal-blue ponds and inlets, down lonely roads leading to modest one-room churches, a schoolhouse and general store, past fields where the roofs of barns have fallen in, and among the fancy Victorian houses along Cambridge’s brick-paved High Street, you begin to agree.
The setting is transportive, and part of that is because a number of sites in Dorchester County, including the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park, sit within the vast boundaries of the Blackwater Refuge. In addition to offering sanctuary to bald eagles, Delmarva fox squirrels and migrating peregrine falcons, the refuge preserved the land where a young Tubman emptied muskrat traps and grew up working on docks and in a lumber business, before she escaped to the North and returned to Maryland multiple times to rescue approximately 70 others, including members of her family.
The audio tour, available in app form or as downloadable files, is thorough, with tracks to be played at 36 different locations — sometimes multiple tracks at one stop. There are explanatory clips that further the story, to be played while driving between sites. The journey is narrated by an older woman who introduces herself as “Liberty,” and refers to listeners as “freedom seekers.” It includes radio play-style reenactments of dramatic moments, features contemporaneous interviews with Tubman descendants about how she is commemorated, and paints a vivid picture of the lives of free and enslaved African Americans. Before the Civil War, free black people outnumbered slaves in Dorchester County: They worked, socialized and worshiped alongside one another, making it easy for word about escapes to spread.
Wisely, the tour doesn’t focus only on Tubman lore: Listeners meet Hugh Hazlett, an Irish lawyer who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and a group of escapees known as the Dover Eight. We hear about how ships filled with kidnapped Africans docked in Cambridge, before the living cargo was auctioned at the courthouse.
Be warned, though, that the tour is easier if the driver isn’t also the navigator: If you’re listening to audio while driving between stops, and need to look at the directions to the next point of interest, the audio stops instead of playing in the background. The tour could also stand some updating. The app’s directions to the Underground Railroad State Park say it’s “to be completed in 2015,” and the printed version of the guide is dated 2017. This means it doesn’t include some of the newer tributes to Tubman in Cambridge: If you haven’t heard about artist Michael Rosato’s evocative mural of Tubman, which decorates the wall behind the Harriet Tubman Organization in Cambridge, you might drive right by.
Tubman’s skill and daring have been renowned since the 19th century, and driving through the back roads of the Eastern Shore, where tall, narrow stands of trees seem to echo the cattails below, you begin to have a better understanding of the land, and the bravery of the enslaved people who made life-or-death decisions in hopes of a new life, and the ordinary and extraordinary people who helped them get there.
Plan ahead: A map and planning guide are available at harriettubmanbyway.org. Apps with audio guides and maps can be downloaded free from the iPhone and Android stores.
Antietam Battlefield Park
Between Juneteenth and the debates over the status of Lincoln Park’s Emancipation Memorial, the Emancipation Proclamation has been in the news quite a bit lately. But don’t forget that Abraham Lincoln was spurred to issue the document, which made enslaved people in Confederate states “then, thenceforward, and forever free” as of Jan. 1, 1863, after the Union Army turned back the Confederate invasion of the North at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.
Antietam, located less than 90 minutes from downtown Washington, is one of the most popular Civil War battlefields. It’s known as the bloodiest day in American history, with almost 23,000 men killed, wounded or missing on both sides. But because the action took place in a single day, with a sequence of attacks over a compact battlefield that today covers around five square miles, it’s easy to explore and understand.
The visitors center and museum are closed, so you can’t watch the half-hour introductory film with awe-inspiring narration from James Earl Jones, but park rangers are on hand every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to answer questions and provide brochures and information. The easiest way to visit is to take the self-guided driving tour, which visits 11 stops over about nine miles of roads; a ranger at the park said it usually takes about two hours to complete. The way is so well-marked that midway through, I stopped consulting the map for upcoming turns, because it was easier to just follow the numbered blue signs.
The key to enjoying Antietam is downloading the Antietam Battle App, created for iPhone and Android by the American Battlefield Trust. It offers in-depth multi-stop tours of four sections of the battlefield, which conveniently overlap with the main tour. What makes the app so powerful and engaging is the frequent use of video, with park rangers and Civil War author and tour guide Garry Adelman describing the action that took place at the spot where you’re standing. When the ranger on the video at the Cornfield talks about thousands of soldiers waiting in the woods behind you, you instinctively swivel around to see the whitewashed Dunker Church. When Adelman tells the story of a Union officer shot while trying to ford Antietam Creek, and how his body was left floating in the water, you can, uncomfortably, visualize it.
(Look, if it sounds as if I’m telling you to drive to a historic battlefield, dotted with close to 100 memorials and statues over fields and copses of woods, just so you can stick your nose in your phone, I’m not. The videos are only a few minutes long, and they enhance the standard text-based information panels at tour stops. Some locations feature actors performing dramatic readings of letters or diary entries about the action on the field, if you want to go full-on Ken Burns. But the app’s interactive maps are also useful for highlighting memorials to individual units and officers, and smaller features along the route.)
While a car makes it easy to get from one end of the battlefield to another, this is a driving tour that can include plenty of walking at each stop, with short trails that lead off the roads, and chances to see how low the Sunken Road really is, or to examine the Maryland Monument, the only monument on the battlefield that memorializes men who fought on opposing sides, slaughtering each other on their home soil. Whether you spend more time in the car or on foot, you’ll come away with a new understanding of the battle, and how terrible, but necessary, it was.
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Plan ahead: You can find maps on nps.gov/anti/, and get a hard copy outside the battlefield visitors center, where portable toilets are located. Download the free Antietam Battle App from your phone’s app store, and download the media directly to your phone, because Internet access on the battlefield can be spotty.
Courageous Journey: A Guide to Alexandria’s African American History
Urban driving tours have different challenges than battlefields or parks. Individual stops require finding a nearby parking space instead of just pulling into a handy lay-by. These tours also frequently require visitors to enter historic sites, which is difficult during a pandemic. Of the 10 stops on the Alexandria Visitor Center’s driving tour of African American historic sites, six are closed. As much as interpretive signs and brochures can help explain history, there’s no substitute for being able to see the exhibitions in the Alexandria Black History Museum, or learning about the slave pens that once stood inside the Freedom House Museum.
Still, there are moving sites to be seen and history to be discovered, even if you’re just looking at explanatory markers outside the public library where a sit-in took place in 1939. What the driving tour and the guide do well is recount another side of the city’s story, which has so often been centered on names like Lee and Carlyle.
A key stop is the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, which marks the final resting place of almost 1,800 African Americans who died in the city between 1864 and 1869; many had fled north to escape slavery and the Civil War. Markers explain how the site was abandoned and neglected by the city during Reconstruction, then “desecrated” with the addition of a gas station and office building in the 20th century — it’s not hard to guess why this was allowed to happen — before a city historian “rediscovered” the forgotten cemetery in 1987. A memorial and outdoor exhibit on the land was dedicated in 2014. The names of many who were buried here are within the memorial, though individual gravesites couldn’t be identified. Still, it’s hard not to be affected by small, simple cobblestone outlines in the grass labeled “grave of a child.”
Alexandria’s African American Heritage Park is also situated on the site of a cemetery — in this case, the Black Baptist Cemetery, which was the city’s first independent burial ground for black residents. It now features a bronze memorial remembering local civic and religious leaders dating back more than two centuries, and a winding trail with other markers. One, next to the channel carrying Hooff’s Run, remembers historic African American neighborhoods. Located a few blocks from the bustle of Duke Street and the Carlyle neighborhood, this is a shady, welcoming place, and it’s easy to forget its original purpose, until you wander down a path and find yourself next to some of the original 19th century gravestones.
With some of the major sites closed, I found myself looking at the “additional locations” featured in the tour brochure that weren’t far off the driving route. That’s how I stumbled upon the solid-looking brick house at 404 South Royal St. — the kind of building you might just drive past in a historic neighborhood. In the 19th century, it was the home of George Lewis Seaton, a master carpenter who constructed schools for black students after the Civil War. He was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates during Reconstruction, where he voted to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments. According to the biographical note in the guide, his mother, Lucinda, was enslaved at Mount Vernon, and freed by Martha Washington.
There’s also the Lloyd House, used as administrative offices of the Office of Historic Alexandria, which has spacious back gardens perfect for resting on a summer day. The brass plaque on the wall facing Washington Street describes how the 1797 building was saved from demolition, but the blurb in the African American tour discusses how enslaved people worked in a now-demolished sugar refinery next door, when Alexandria was one of the leading sugar producers in America, and how Henry Hallowell, who lived in the house in the 19th century, “is thought to have been a conductor on the Underground Railroad.” I’m glad the house was saved, but I know which history sounds more interesting.
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