Iowa Underground Railroad Bike Ride

Sept 13-15, 2024

Illuminating Iowa’s History

What is the Iowa Underground Railroad Ride?

The Iowa Underground Railroad Ride explores parts of the Underground Railroad that runs through Iowa. In 2023, The National Association of Social Work- Iowa Chapter, Black Girls do Bike- Des Moines, Total Family Wellness – Ankeny, the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, and other invested volunteers and partners came together with a shared vision: Iowans would know the history of the Iowa Underground Railroad. 

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid 1800s. Its purpose was to help enslaved African Americans escape from slavery in the South to freedom in the North and Canada.

The inaugural Ride of 2023 was a huge success, however, the Hitchcock house in Tabor had to close due to unsafe conditions. After the renovation, 2024 will highlight this historic house along with other experiences had in other towns. The Iowa Underground Railroad Bike Ride will move along the route in the coming years to continue to highlight the historical landmarks and share stories of the brave Freedom Seekers and the Iowans who risked helping them to freedom. 

Tabor and Lewis, Iowa, were two important stops on the Underground Railroad. Tabor was a center of abolitionist activity, and many of its residents were involved in helping enslaved people escape to freedom. Lewis, located north east of Tabor, was also an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

The exact route of the Underground Railroad from Tabor to Lewis is not well-documented, as secrecy was of the utmost importance to those involved. However, it is known that many enslaved people traveled through these towns on their way to freedom. There was incredible risk to life and property, especially after the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. This federal law required all those escaping slavery be returned to enslavers, regardless of where they were found. It required citizens, even in states where slavery was illegal, to aid in their capture. It imposed fines and imprisonment on those who aided anyone escaping. 

A well-known Underground Railroad figure in Iowa was John Todd. Todd moved to Iowa in 1850s and became involved in the Underground Railroad. He used his position as a Congregational minister to assist people escaping to freedom. Todd’s activism often put him at odds with other members of his community, and he received threats and faced harassment. Despite this, he remained committed to the cause of abolition and continued to work for justice and equality throughout his life.

People would journey from the Todd House and may have stopped in Lewis, IA. The Hitchcock House is a historic Underground Railroad site located in Lewis, Iowa. The house was built in 1856 by Reverend George B. Hitchcock, also a Congregational minister, abolitionist, and an active participant in the Underground Railroad.  The Hitchcock House was a safe haven and also a place where abolitionists could gather and plan their activities.

Little is known about the actual individuals who braved the difficult and dangerous road to freedom. It was reportedly too dangerous to document activities as this could lead to arrest or other forms of punishment and those journeying may not have had the resources to write down or record their story. However, snapshots of freedom seekers’ lives are shared while visiting these Underground Railroad landmarks, including the story of Celia and Eliza, two women who had been enslaved in Missouri and fled to Iowa. 

The Todd House and Hitchcock House are both historical structures that serve to remind us of all the people who fought against oppression and including those who risked their physical lives to experience freedom. 

The Iowa Underground Railroad Ride is September 15-17th, 2023. During this ride we aim to recognize, acknowledge and honor the known and unknown Black individuals who bravely risked their lives seeking freedom along the Iowa Underground Railroad. We will recognize the allied abolitionists who aided in the cause. 

This ride is one of endurance, introspection, celebration and community. We hope you will join us.