Underground Railroad Bicycle Route Showcases Detroit History

Detroiters and bike adventurers have a new way to learn about the city's importance to the Underground Railroad.

The Adventure Cycling Association, a Montana-based organization that compiles bicycle-friendly routes for cross-country touring, wrote an Underground Railroad guide in 2007 that showed a route from Mobile, Ala., to Canada with a crossover through New York state. But Adventure Cycling director Jim Sayer said the organization soon received criticism from history buffs, who argued slaves escaping to freedom before the Civil War did not use a defined route. The Underground Railroad was a loose collection of secret routes, safe houses and connections for slaves seeking freedom.

As a result, the cycling organization decided to create more maps, and added the new 518-mile Detroit Alternate trail to the Underground Railroad routes. The map shows a bike path that diverges from the original route in Oberlin, Ohio, and winds through Michigan to end points in Marine City, Mich., and Owen Sound, Ontario.

Adventure Cycling showed the Detroit Alternate to the public on Feb. 14, and held a meet-and-greet event in Detroit on Thursday to explain the local points of interest.

Sayer said Adventure Cycling's bike maps don't usually include urban areas, but the organization made an exception for Detroit because of its rich history and major steps the city is taking to become bicycle-friendly. Adventure Cycling also was attracted to the work of historian Kimberly Simmons, who is advocating that the Detroit River be designated a U.N. World Heritage Site.

Simmons chairs the Detroit Historical Society's Black Historic Sites Committee and is a member of the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission, a governor-appointed task force dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Underground Railroad in the state. She helped the cycling organization create the new route.

Featured Detroit sites along the bike route include the Historic Second Baptist Church in Greektown, the location of a historic meeting between John Brown and Frederick Douglass, and Elmwood Cemetery, where many famous abolitionists are buried.

Work on the Detroit project started in 2009 and included National Park Service, the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Minority Health, Michigan Trails and Greenway Alliance and the City of Detroit Historic Commission, as well as local volunteers. Simmons said enthusiasm for the project among local historians was infectious.

"A lot of Underground descendants are involved, who aren't bicycling enthusiasts, have been encouraged to get on two wheels and see the sites that way," Simmons said. "It's a totally different experience."

Bike tourism of this kind could have a positive economic impact for Detroit. A 2010 Wisconsin study estimated the economic benefits of cycling tourism to be $1.5 billion in the state.

Sayer said he believes Michigan could become one of the top five bike tourism states in the next few years because of its history and natural beauty. "This is a very beautiful state and we don't press it," Simmons said. "Cycling is a fabulous way to see the state."