In 2006, Portland, Maine, created an interpretive trail through its Old Port district linking places associated with the Underground Railroad. Portland used a website, a pamphlet and on-site markers to make the city’s prominent role in slaves’ route to freedom visible. This seacoast city’s effort was typical of a trend in recent decades of forming urban, self-guided interpretive paths.
The tour’s sixteen sites encompass most of the characteristics of strong narratives everywhere. Tracing a path from one granite marker to the next unfurls a plot of derring-do and danger, good pacing, strong characters, and an appropriately historic setting. In fact, the path recounts two parallel and overlapping stories of, on the one hand, the typical route of a runaway slave heading north for freedom in Canada or Great Britain and, on the other, of the individuals in Portland who made that trip possible.
Portland was a major destination for sailing vessels coming out of the West Indies in the Triangular Trade of the late 1700s and early 1800s because it had a safe deep water port and as many as seven rum distilleries for converting molasses into a more valuable product for consuming locally and for exchanging in Africa for more slaves.
The markers begin on the waterfront where a slave who had stowed away aboard a vessel coming north along the eastern seaboard reached his landing. Slavery had been abolished in Maine in 1783, and by the early nineteenth century the city’s stevedores and longshoremen were largely African American.
These waterfront free men might first lead the stowaway to a barber shop run by an African American. He could provide information about safe houses and “conductors” on the Underground Railroad, as well as the wigs, beards, and haircuts needed as part of a new appearance. Nearby a secondhand clothing store, one of the few other trades free African Americans could pursue at the time, could assure the newly arrived southerners adequate warmth for the journey to a cold-weather destination. The owners of these venues in Portland were also leaders of the anti-slavery movement in the city and region.
A church was often the next stop, where the owner of a safe house would be met. Portland’s Abyssinian Church two blocks from the waterfront was built in 1828, the third in the United States, and became a hub of the Underground Railroad in Maine. From its pulpit impassioned speeches against slavery were delivered by the leading abolitionists in the country, including Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison.
Pro-slavers knew what the four churches along the Portland route stood for. The first Afro-centric history of the world was published in the basement of Mariners’ Church. The city’s First Baptist Church started the anti-slavery movement in Maine when the Boston abolitionist William Garrison
spoke to 2,000 gathered there in 1832, but it was also the site of the pro-slavery riot and the near murder of abolitionist Stephen Symonds Foster ten years later. Danger lurked everywhere since hiding a runaway slave was a crime punishable by fines and prison, and the slave faced the death penalty for running away.
Many a parishioner provided a safe house for the runaway until safe passage northward could be arranged. The Eastman, Thomas, and Fessenden homes, each a site on the trail, served that purpose. Two sites in Portland were hack stands of African American anti-slavery activists who helped fugitive slaves in route.
Along this Freedom Trail, the narrative pacing is good: Twelve of the 13 sites are within two city blocks of one another. And the setting supports historical interpretation. Multi-masted schooners for charter bob at the wharves in summer, the Portland Observatory—recently restored as the only such remaining nineteenth century naval tower on the Eastern Seaboard—rises from the top of nearby Munjoy Hill, and the walk is surrounded by the Old Port’s 19th century brick buildings.