Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, MD Ron Thomson
Text for wayside exhibits, in parks and along trails, brings a different challenge. The need for brevity remains, but the subject of the text is a vista, landscape, environment, or building. A series of panels written for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Heritage Corridor illustrates how to give a setting interpretive meaning.

Learning The Land

Born nearby on Anthony Thompson’s plantation in 1822, Harriet Tubman spent more than 25 years living and laboring amid landscapes like these.

The environment shaped the nature of life here. Within this setting, Tubman learned how to navigate creeks and wetlands, forests and fields.  She knew where to find food, and how to move about unseen. Her mastery of these skills was vital to her success as one of the best-known conductors on the Underground Railroad.

In this park, and along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, many of the landscapes that surround you would look familiar to Tubman if she returned here today. Discover Tubman’s life story in the state park’s visitor center. On foot, by bike, or by kayak explore the Eastern Shore that shaped Tubman’s life.

Slavery’s Arboretum

The forests and waterways of the Eastern Shore, traditional homeland of the Choptank and Nanticoke Indians, provided the backdrop for the austere home life, backbreaking labor, and dramatic escapes of enslaved blacks.

Hundreds of acres of white oak, black walnut, poplar, hickory, and sweet gum trees, located near river transportation, provided income to local landowners. Harriet Tubman and her father Ben Ross not only graded and harvested the timber in these forests, but Harriet learned lessons for living off the land.

When fugitives chose flight, they applied these lessons to survive.  Fruit trees offered food.  Greenbrier thickets ripped clothes and scratched bodies. The spiked fruit of the sweet gum might painfully pierce hurried feet, but the tree’s resin soothed painful wounds.

Little things, learned by living here, spelled success or failure on the Underground Railroad. Walk the trails ahead and enter the natural lifeline that sustained, or hindered, a journey to freedom.

Emphasis on sustained storyline may be less critical for some projects. Instead, in many settings, installations can be more self-contained. While design features like layout, colors, fonts, and hardware make individual units part of a system, panel storylines often are focused on what is directly in front of the viewer.

Carroll’s Pride

Nurseryman Tim Carroll would be proud, but hardly surprised.  A one time resident of Australia, Carroll knew the potential grandeur of the Moreton Bay fig trees that he sold to Anaheim residents in the early years of the 20th century.  No one has a bill of sale, but the facts point to Carroll’s nursery as the source for the massive tree, native to Australia, that you see here.

What better introduction to the flora of Founders Park?  The walk beneath the tree’s shade and along the OK Trail, donated by a local patron of Anaheim history, winds through a botanical catalog of local plant history.  Carefully chosen to reflect the outdoor landscapes of 19th-century Anaheim, park plantings include grapes and walnut trees, ornamentals like roses, and native cacti and succulents.

An Architectural Sampler

The houses of Founders Park illustrate how 19th-century Anaheim architecture changed.

The modest Mother Colony House represents the first years of the Anaheim colony.  It reflects the hard work of creating a homestead around a simple, single-story house that seems grafted to the ground beneath.  While not the frontier, Anaheim colony was miles from the markets of Los Angeles, the nearest seaport, or the closest railroad depot.

The Woelke home, in contrast, soars. Decoratively ornate, it reflects the growing prosperity of Anaheim and the desire to bring the latest styles to the city.  The Industrial Revolution introduced mass production to housing construction including gingerbread details for Victorian homes.  The port at Anaheim Landing brought shipping closer, and the railroad rolled into town in 1875.

“Lured into the Open” 

Southern California’s climate, concluded writer George Wharton Taylor, lures residents into the open.  Throughout its entire history, Anaheim has proven Taylor correct.  Photo after photo shows families posing outside in the California sunlight amidst useful furnishings—fences and clotheslines—as well as decorative features—flower gardens and grape arbors.  Hand pumps share backyards with swings.  Chicken coops with horse barns.  Windmills, in a variety of shapes, catch breezes bred over the Pacific Ocean to pump water gathered below.

Just as the interiors of the houses in Founders Park illustrate indoor life, the backyards reassembled here remind visitors that Californians, then as well as now, extend their home life out of doors.

On occasion, a wayside exhibit project may require connected stories. This was the case for a series of trail signs along the San Gabriel River in Los Angeles County where each panel explored a different perspective on the river.

San Gabriel Stories: 

Jardin de Roca

Countless flash floods, spanning millennia, swept mountain debris—mud, gravel, and rock—into the San Gabriel Valley creating what the Spanish called a garden of rock—jardin de roca.

And lest you think that massive, water-born rockslides are history, the Santa Fe Dam stands as a four-mile long, 92-foot high reminder that the Army Corps of Engineers worries that the past could happen again.  Completed in 1949, the dam is intended to stop errant mud and debris flows from upriver and save downstream cities from burial.

Meanwhile, modern machines remove the stony deposits that collected here.  Several nearby quarries yield more aggregate—gravel and stone—than any others in the state, billions of tons since 1900.  As this redistribution of San Gabriel Mountain rocks continues, the jardin de roca is now embedded in buildings, parking lots, airport runways, and freeways all across Los Angeles.

San Gabriel Stories:


Whittier Narrows has a reputation for birds, native birds and migrating birds—300 species of birds.  With the Puente Hills rising on the east and west, as the San Gabriel River slips through this gap on its way to the ocean, this open land provides a natural sanctuary in urbanized Los Angeles.

The birds are here because of a mix of oak, sycamore, and willow woodlands plus marsh, grasslands, and coastal sage scrub.  Lakes and spreading grounds provide an added, irresistible attraction, particularly for ducks and geese.  There are heron along the river and in wetlands.  Songbirds—yellow-breasted chat, California towhee, and dozens of other species—prefer the grasslands.  Birds of prey—hawks and owls—thrive on the narrows’ small mammals.

Nurtured by this checkerboard of habitats, bird diversity is so great that one bird count reached 102 species on a single day.

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