Canadian stops on the Underground Railroad provide solace

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LAKESHORE, Ontario -- In the cornfields of Ontario, one of Canada's most significant Underground Railroad sights is tucked behind tall grass and a red metal fence.

Nobody would ever find you here.

But of course, that was the original point.

When former slave John Freeman Walls and his white wife escaped from North Carolina to Canada in 1846, they simply wanted safety and peace. They found it on these 20 rural acres, where they raised a family and built a cabin.

Now somewhat tumbledown and embraced by wildflowers and thistles, its only visitors on a September afternoon are fluttering butterflies and one busload of Detroit tourists.

Yet I found the modest Walls Historic Site a touching remembrance of the power of the Underground Railroad.

"It's nice to come here and say, oh, you reached the other side," says Norma Sales of Detroit, one of a group of Michigan travelers on a two-day tour to see spots in southwest Ontario that make up the Canadian half of the freedom tale.

Underground Railroad historical sites are plentiful in the U.S., especially in Detroit, one of the busiest crossing points to freedom. But in Canada, you can see the other half of the story -- what happened to the estimated 30,000 people who crossed into southwest Ontario between 1834 and 1860. Black history is alive in Lakeshore, Amherstburg, Dresden, North Buxton and Windsor. Many fugitives who crossed in turn became key figures in the Underground Railroad.

The lessons these sites impart to visitors?

PG map: Freedom's crossroads
(Click image for larger version)

"Perseverance, hard work, doing the right thing -- and don't give up," says Stewart McMillin, a Detroit tour guide who specializes in Underground Railroad tours, including sites in Canada. "There are so many stories here."

You can navigate your own personal driving trip of Underground Railroad sites in southwest Ontario, all part of the Ontario Heritage Trust Slavery to Freedom circuit. Some are easy to find, like the North American Black Historical Museum in Amherstburg. Some are quite a drive from Detroit, like Uncle Tom's Cabin in Dresden, north of Chatham. Some, like the Walls site, would be totally off your radar if you did not know how to find it.

You also can take an organized tour. Mr. McMillin, who specializes in Underground Railroad tours, puts together such tours once or twice a year.

Sheridan Daniels of Detroit, who took a McMillin tour Sept. 3, says she had no idea so much black history was in southwestern Ontario. For instance, "I had heard of Uncle Tom's Cabin and read about it, but that's about it," she says. "I never had actually seen it before."

Josiah Henson escaped from his Kentucky slave master in 1830 and came to Canada. He later wrote an autobiography, which writer Harriet Beecher Stowe used as inspiration for "Uncle Tom's Cabin." That 1853 novel helped change U.S. public opinion about slavery.

So one critical Underground Railroad stop in Ontario is in Dresden, where Henson started the New Dawn Settlement to help fugitive slaves start over in Canada.

In beautiful Amherstburg, the small North American Black Historical Museum documents the history of those who crossed the narrow Detroit River near Belle Isle to freedom.

Meanwhile, back at the John Freeman Walls site, tourists gather around a red "freedom bell" meant to be rung by arriving fugitives.

When John and Jane Walls arrived in 1846, they helped start the local Baptist church, which helped other escaped slaves gain land to farm. This was crucial in the dire years after 1850 when the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act allowed runaway slaves to be arrested even in northern states like Michigan, forcing people to cross to Canada for safety.

Today, at the Walls site there are handmade signs, one of which says: "Alabama: 833 Miles."

It all speaks of lives that finally found peace.

If you go ... Canada's Underground railroad

Underground Railroad sites in Canada John Freeman Walls Historic Site, Lakeshore, Ontario -- 859 Puce Road (one mile north of Highway 401 exit 28.) Descendants of Walls founded this site to commemorate his part in the Underground Railroad. (, 1-519-727-6555.)

Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, Dresden, Ontario -- 9251 Uncle Tom's Road; off exit 101 on Highway 401. The house of Josiah Henson, who inspired "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and who helped settle other fugitives at his New Dawn Settlement. (, 1-519-683-2978, admission $6.25. Open year round by appointment for groups; May 18-Oct. 25 for individual visitors.)

North American Black Historical Museum, Amherstburg -- 277 King St. Marks the town's vital role in transporting slaves to freedom across the Detroit River. (, 1-519-736-5433, admission $6.50.)

Buxton National Historic Site & Museum, North Buxton -- 21975 A. D. Shadd Road. One of the few remaining African-Canadian settlements still in existence, it's a thriving indicator of the Underground Railroad's enduring power. (, 1-519-352-4799, $6 admission.)

Underground Railroad tours

Southfield-based Michigan Millennium Metro Tours will run small-group tours twice a week from May 1 to October 2014 that will take you to sights in southwest Ontario. Updates at, 1-313-345-8687.

Detroit-based Stewart McMillin Tours will run a trip in Ontario Oct. 23-27, 2014, stopping in or near London, Hamilton, Toronto, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines. (, 1-313-922-1990.)

Follow the North Star Tour is a custom four- or five-day tour for groups of 20 or more of places in Detroit, southwest Ontario and Niagara Falls. (

Note: All travelers to Canada must have a passport, passport card or enhanced driver's license to cross the border.


First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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