When visitors come to see the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom exhibit at Leesylvania State Park, the same sorts of questions inevitably arise.
“Some will always ask how a railroad plays into the network that helped slaves escape to the North,” said Maritza Rivas, the chief ranger for visitor experience at the Prince William County park. “We explain that the name was given, supposedly, when a group of slaves being chased suddenly disappeared in the woods and someone commented that it was as though an underground railroad picked them up and took them away.”
The exhibit was created through a partnership with the National Park Service and abundant research done with state colleges about the 15 slaves who escaped from the property from 1784 to 1861. That was a period when the property was owned by the Lee and Fairfax families and slaves worked the property that was the birthplace of Henry Lee III, the father of Robert E. Lee.
Rivas noted that Leesylvania and the National Park Service used the extensive research done as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom to create an exhibit and visitor experience that’s offered up to the public each February. It’s held often this month (see the schedule under “events” at dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/leesylvania) and is one of the more popular offerings at the park.
The exhibit is in the visitor center at the 556-acre park in a spot known by locals as Freestone Point, sometimes called Lees Neck, along the Potomac River—bounded on the south side by Powells Creek and to the north by Neabsco Creek.
Rivas said the exhibit—built around the quilts used as road maps and instructions to guide escaping slaves toward freedom to the North—is targeted for children between the ages of 7 to 12, but never fails to fascinate adults as well.
It has a large quilt hanging over an activities table where youngsters can draw their own quilts, with banners hanging from the ceiling that explain many of the images used on quilts that were hung on clotheslines or in windows to give directions to escaping slaves.
The images range from a log cabin (indicating stations where slaves could hide) to a “drunkard’s path” (suggesting movement in a zigzag path, avoiding major roads) to a bear’s paw (directing them to follow the path of an animal, often the best route through a mountainous area).
Rivas said research turned up details about the slaves who escaped. Included in that are notices of rewards offered by the owners and overseers, and the detail that five slaves who escaped to the U.S. Steam Sloop Seminole in September 1861 were “reporting Confederate troop numbers and the Freestone Point Confederate Battery location.”
Rivas said that the special Underground Railroad programs in February join a host of other seasonal activities at the riverside park that range from a fishing tournament for kids, “Junior Ranger” summer camp sessions for youngsters, an Easter egg hunt and a Colonial Christmas celebration.
She said the park is one of the busiest “day use” parks in the state, especially in the summer when folks flock to the park to use picnic areas, launch boats and kayaks, fish, see summer concerts, hike the trails and spend the night at tents-only primitive campsites.
Concessions are available at Breakwater Store, while a marina store has a boat pump-out station and bathrooms with showers. The Bait Shack is open Memorial Day to Labor Day on Saturday and Sunday, while the park also offers sailboat rentals and one-hour charter cruises through private concessionaires.
Rivas said that while the park is busiest in the summer, since it offers a chance for folks to get to the waterside in a very populated area, there are regulars who come to walk, hike and simply commune with nature all year.
“They’re one of the reasons we’re always changing up our programs, because we know folks will be looking for something new the next time they come to the park,” she said.
The Underground Railroad exhibit also provides a wealth of information about the history of Freestone Point long before it became a park.
In 1978, philanthropist Daniel Ludwig had donated the land to the state for a park. A national historical society, the Society of Lees of Virginia, was instrumental in securing the donation. The name “Freestone Point” refers to the sandstone early settlers took from the property for building. Leesylvania State Park opened in 1989, and more facilities were added in 1992.
For more information on Leesylvania State Park and its offerings, go to dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/leesylvania.
“The Secret Story of Quilts” also draws on the book “Hidden in Plain View” by Jacquieline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard.