Beachcombing for Cultural Touchstones

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By Laura Deering

visitor center harriet tubman by way

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway).

Beachcombing often offers much more than a find that fits into our pockets. It can be a heart-stopping sunset, a kind beachcomber giving us their find, or an exhilarating encounter with nature. Another treasure can be cultural touchstones that can’t be tucked into a bag, but are meaningful connections to a time, place, and event.

What is a Cultural Touchstone?

For some it is a feeling that links across generations. At a glance, this could be something momentous like the Statue of Liberty, or majestic like the White Cliffs of Dover. Perhaps it is more intimate, such as your favorite shore where you took the kids beachcombing, bonding with the next generation. Maybe you already have many touchstones ranging from lighthouses, fishing villages, or secluded stretches of endless coast. Top on the list, for me, is visiting places that were part of the Underground Railroad in America. As stated by the Ocean Conservatory organization, “…a significant portion of the Underground Railroad took place on water.”

Bodies of Water Mark the Path

The major routes of the Underground Railroad were located near bodies of water and the markers can still be found today. These cultural touchstones include safe houses, museums, and monuments. Enslaved African Americans, denied an education and tools such as maps and compasses, used rivers, lakes and oceans as means of transportation, along with a guiding sense of direction. Their journey was one of great bravery in achieving freedom.

Along the Underground Railroad were a series of clandestine stations known as safe houses. The safe houses, often with hidden rooms, provided food and shelter, as well a “conductor” who would guide them to the next place of refuge known only by its code name.

Michigan City

Michigan City Lighthouse (Jan Hoeppner). Michigan City Pier (Amy Bissonette).

The Mississippi River was a main route of escape. Heading north, it eventually connects to the Great Lakes. Many of the port towns such as Michigan City, Indiana, Ashtabula, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan were Underground Railroad communities on the Great Lakes. The top mode of travel at the time took place on waterways, using vessels such as canoes, schooners, and even steamboats plying north. The ultimate destination was Canada, as only then would they truly be free.

Detroit River, Michigan: Code Name “Midnight”

Mariner Church Detroit

Mariner Church (Emily Deering).

“Freedom, Freedom, Freedom!” Is a song belted out by Detroit diva Aretha Franklin, and her hometown was part of the Underground Railroad scene. Detroit was one of the major terminals of the Underground Railroad. Its codename was “Midnight,” and it’s where thousands joyfully culminated their journey crossing the Detroit River to Canada.

Detroit has several touchstones that reflect its proud history, including tours of safe houses and the African American Museum. A poignant monument titled Gateway to Freedom is an International Memorial to the Underground Railroad. It resides on the water’s edge and the perfect place to reflect, respect, and pay homage.

The Mariner Church completes the trifecta of safe havens. It served as a safe house, a sanctuary, and continues its rich maritime heritage. Situated on the glinting lapis waters of the Detroit River, it sits directly across from Canada.

The church, built in 1842, coincided with the completion of the Erie canal and a time when Detroit experienced an increase of passing sailors. The church founder Julia Anderson responded to the care and spiritual needs of seamen. It also was the last stop on the Underground Railroad for many.

Lake Erie, Ashtabula, Ohio: Code Name “Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard”

Col. William Hubbard House Ashtabula

William Hubbard House in Ashtabula (Upstateherd).

The Lake Erie community of Ashtabula, Ohio is a popular beachcombing event destination. It also abounds with numerous cultural touchstones. This Abolitionist community was a hive of activity, with over 30 safe houses and even more conductors. About 20 of the safe houses still remain to this day.

A visit offers an opportunity to see the famous Hubbard House, a pre-Civil War destination safe house. The Hubbard family strived daily to shelter and transport freedom seekers from the Lake Erie port town to Canada. In fact, its code name was “Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard.” The family’s dedication and bravery bringing peace and opportunity to thousands was a profound feat.

Some of the Hubbard descendants moved to the Underground Railroad town where I live in Minnesota. Most notable was Harriet (Hubbard) Stevens, who passionately served as a nurse during the Civil War. Afterwards, she enlisted help from the community and founded a Black church, Emmanuel Episcopal, in 1889 in the ocean port city of Jacksonville, Florida.

St. Paul's Church Jacksonville FL

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Jacksonville, Florida (Laura Deering).

Although the Emmanuel building no longer exists, you can visit its exact replica. Stevens used the same blueprints from a previous Jacksonville church she built, St. Paul’s Episcopal. Thankfully, Jacksonville adores the church and its history. As the community grew over the years, it has been moved four times. The last journey occurred in 1974, when the church was loaded on a barge and floated across two rivers! It now peacefully resides at beautiful San Marco Park.

My visit to the touchstone meant more than admiring its gothic architecture or touching the patina worn woodwork of the sanctuary. It was meeting the descendants of the original Emmanuel Black church who combined with St. Paul’s congregation, which brought forth tears of joy for all of us.

It felt expansive and encompassing to link the physical touchstones and see the bigger picture of courageous and noble people, scattered thousands of miles across the country, gathered as one.

Chesapeake Bay, Maryland: Harriet Tubman Code Name “Moses”

portraits of harriet tubman

Harriet Tubman c.1868-9 (Library of Congress). HarrietTubman c.1871-1876 (Library of Congress). Harriet Tubman c. 1885 (H. Seymour Squyer, Library of Congress).

For many of us, when thinking about the Underground Railroad, the names of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass come to mind. They both took advantage of the vast Chesapeake Bay area as a means of escape. Tubman, whose code name was “Moses,” astoundingly made 19 bold forays, leading her people along the bays and rivers known as the Chesapeake Underground. Within the limitless waterways was a hidden network of safe houses where ship captains would eventually take freedom seekers aboard to cross the Potomac.

Many Black people in the area were working watermen with more leeway. They used their independence to guide escapees or stow them on vessels. Douglass, in his autobiography, wrote “Our reason for taking the water route was, that we were less liable to be suspected as runaways, we hoped to be regarded as fishermen.” Douglass’ first attempt by canoe was foiled and he was sent to labor at the Baltimore shipyards. He tried again, posing as a free Black sailor, and successfully used the water to his advantage and escaped.

harriet tubman by way underground railroad museum

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway).

You can visit the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park at Church Creek, Maryland. The Park marks the trailhead for the 125‐mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a designated All-American Road. The Visitor Center has exhibits welcoming visitors to learn more about Harriet’s daring ventures through the largest estuary in the United States.

harriet tubman by way underground railroad museum inside

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway).

Something Calling Me: A Sense of Place

Whatever the waterway, you also may find a sense of place where this encounter of the larger self presents itself. Sometimes it is by purpose or chance. It almost seems the touchstone is serendipitously reaching out to us, beckoning us to close our eyes and imagine the time, place and event unfold in our mind’s eye.

Maybe on your next beachcombing outing, having arrived at your touchstone, breathe deeply, taste the air, anchor to the earth, and harken to the waves. Store the visualization in your brain, to retrieve whenever you want. Envision what took place on the very spot you stand in years past—and who will be there years from now. Say thank you to those generations past, present, and yet to come.

There are two worlds; the world that we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we can feel with our hearts and imagination. ~ Leigh Hunt.

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