The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and the visitor center are opening the weekend of March 10-12. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
The land here is so flat it takes hours for the sun to set. But when night finally falls, it's as swift, weighted and absolute as a blackout curtain.
Angela Crenshaw likes to imagine the young Harriet Tubman reveling in the glory of that sunset and finding in the blinding, golden bar of horizontal light a symbol of the faith that sustained her.
She likes to imagine Tubman creeping into the thicket of Loblolly Pine and cedar forests surrounding the Brodess plantation where she was enslaved — a canopy so dense that someone standing in the forest at noon can't see the sun — and trusting that she wouldn't be detected.
"People today like to think of enslaved people as running through the forests to freedom," says Crenshaw, assistant manager of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, which will open to the public on March 11.
"But nobody runs through the forests here, especially at night. The trees are packed so tightly you can barely squeeze through. The land is squishy and wet, so her feet would have sunk into the mud. The ground is full of pine needles that crunch underfoot."
When Gov. Larry Hogan officially dedicates the state park and visitors center on March 10, it will be the most recent in a series of tributes the nation is belatedly paying to the Underground Railroad's most renowned conductor. During her long and remarkable life, Tubman also was a Civil War spy, suffragist and nurse.
"It's been a long time coming," said Patricia Ross Hawkins, a distant niece of Tubman's and one of more than a dozen family members who served as consultants as the Visitors Center was planned.
"She started life as a slave and became an international hero. She died in 1913, and she's finally getting the recognition she deserves."
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"Our administration is proud to support this state-of-the-art educational facility and state park, which celebrates the life and achievements of this exemplary Marylander and preserve her legacy for a whole new generation. This is a fitting tribute to an abolitionist, humanitarian, and a true Maryland hero who risked everything so that others could be free."
Among her other achievements, the fierce, 5'0" Tubman — nicknamed "Moses" — rescued about 70 family members and friends during 13 return trips to Maryland after her escape in 1849 and through 1860. She was the only woman to lead a military unit in combat during the Civil War. During the Combahee River Raid of 1863, Tubman guided gunboats containing 150 black Union soldiers through the South Carolina swamps, freeing 750 people.
Plans are in the works to erect two statues of Tubman, one in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and the other (along with a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass) in the Maryland State House. Some time before 2030, Tubman's face will adorn the $20 bill.
And the same legislation that designated Tubman's old stomping grounds in Maryland as a national historical park in 2014 also created another Tubman national park in Auburn, New York, where she spent the last half century of her life.
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The state park serves as a gateway to Maryland's national park, which includes a 125-mile scenic driving tour of places significant to Tubman known as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway.
Maryland Park Service Superintendent Nita Settina estimated that the state park would welcome as many as 200,000 visitors in its first year, and average 75,000 thereafter. Though economic impact studies are notoriously dicey, a 2009 report by Dorchester County's Office of Tourism predicts the Tubman sites will generate between $9.3 million and $20.8 million annually for Maryland.
It's worth noting that the Visitors Center is not a museum.
It doesn't include artifacts from the abolitionist's life; many of those, including her hymnal, a lace shawl given to Tubman by England's Queen Victoria and family photographs from her funeral, reside in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
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Nor can Church Creek boast a cluster of centrally located buildings that Tubman would have frequented. For that, history lovers have to visit central New York.
But the Maryland parks have something to offer that the other sites do not — the drama of Tubman's daring rescues.
The Dorchester County parks endeavor to take modern-day visitors back to the Eastern Shore as it was during the first half of the 19th century. Guests begin their exploration in the Visitors Center, which was built on a tract of land estimated to be a few miles from the plantation on which Tubman lived while enslaved.
The center features large-scale exhibits from Tubman's life. There's a replica of the corn crib in which she and her brothers hid in 1854 while she was helping the runaways escape, as well as a large sculpture depicting the Combahee River Raid. Tubman is portrayed as kneeling on the prow of a boat, pulling a desperate man from the water.
There are text panels explaining the disguises Tubman wore and how she learned to walk without making a sound and to navigate by the stars. There's information about the two old spirituals —"Go Down Moses" and "Bound for the Promised Land" — that she famously sang, changing the tempo to indicate to fugitives whether it was safe to come out of hiding.
From the Visitors Center, guests will venture into a landscape that has altered little since Tubman's time.
"The remarkable thing is that it looks now very close to the way it looked 150 years ago," said Jordan Loran of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the project's director of engineering and construction.
"There's been very little development, so the wooded areas are still there. There's flat water and you see open land and farms. We wanted to bring across the dichotomy between the beauty of the landscape and the horrors of slavery."
"We spent a lot of time discussing how she went north 13 times and came back. She went from areas of safety to areas of danger."
The 15,000-square-foot center consists of four barn-like structures, or "volumes" representing stations on the Underground Railroad journey. The three volumes dedicated to the 19th century are clad in what now is a light green zinc, while the fourth, which will house such present-day functions as the gift shop and restrooms, is clad in wood.
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"Zinc dulls over with time," architect Chris Elcock said. "If zinc is cut or scratched, it will self-heal. In that way, it is a metaphor for the country's experience with slavery."
Visitors enter the center at the south end and walk north. They'll proceed from narrow, closed-in galleries with low ceilings to spaces that gradually become lighter and more spacious with ceilings that tower overhead.
When guests finally arrive at the northernmost building representing freedom, they'll find a wall interspersed with 18 windows that appear randomly placed. Some windows are vertical, and others, horizontal. There are rectangles and squares.
The design alone is striking enough to draw the eye. But, it's no coincidence that the wall faces west. Each aperture contains a stained glass window depicting the changing seasons. When the late afternoon sun strikes those windows, the wall will be ablaze with colored light.
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When visitors move outdoors, the grounds will also have lessons to impart about Tubman's life. For instance, the Memorial Garden contains three distinct types of turf: lawns mowed close to the ground, knee-high grass, and areas with waist-high grass and shrubs and trees.
"Visitors will find yourself at various stages of concealment," Elcock said. "Sometimes, they'll be totally exposed to view."
In addition, guests at times must decide whether to take the path to the left or right.
"All the paths in the park end up in the same place," Elcock said.
"But visitors will have to make decisions about which way to turn without being able to see what's up ahead. These are real-world considerations for someone who's escaping."
Shortly after Crenshaw, the assistant state park manager, moved to Dorchester County in the spring of 2016, she began experiencing what she described as "Tubman feels."
For example, while conducting a recent tour, Crenshaw was talking about the wild turkeys that occupy the woods both today and 150 years ago. At that moment, a group of the clumsy fowl came out of nowhere and barreled across the visitors' path, looking, Crenshaw said, "like falling bowling pins."
"To me, that's a message that I should be here and we should be doing what we're doing," she said. "The landscape is the most important interpretive tool we have. It speaks to me, works through me."
The terrain, she said, helps explain not just what Tubman accomplished, but how. It reveals both obstacles and inspiration.
As Crenshaw put it: "At night you can't see your hand in front of your face because nothing breaks up the darkness.