The Iowa Underground Railroad Bike Ride will lead cyclists through 136 miles of history

Underground Railroad Ride

Tabor and Lewis, Sept. 15-17, $135

Underground Railroad Ride co-organizers Dayna Chandler (above) and Julia Rose will guide riders along the route. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

A portion of Iowa’s rich abolitionist history will be revealed for some, and refreshed for others, during the new Iowa Underground Railroad Bike Ride.

Presented by Iowa’s National Association of Social Workers, the Des Moines branch of Black Girls Do Bike and the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, the two-and-a-half-day ride combines learning, endurance and community in the southwest Iowa towns of Lewis and Tabor.

According to Julia Rose, the board president for the Iowa National Association of Social Workers, a bicycle tour provides the “ability to slow down and see things and process things a little bit better than driving.”

“I like bike rides where people will have a goal together and a mission,” Rose added. “It just seemed like a way to build camaraderie, have conversations that we might not usually take time to have.”

That conversation will take place between a set of Iowa stops on the Underground Railroad, a series of geographical points in the early- and mid-19th century that provided a route to freedom for those fleeing slavery. Rather than brazenly traveling on actual train tracks, as the name might imply, escapees made their way through woods and rivers, often stopping to hide under floorboards or in back rooms provided by abolitionists. The metaphor behind the name Underground Railroad extended into the language used when referring to its participants. “Conductors” were travel guides, and runaways were “passengers” who stayed at “stations.”

On Sept. 15, the Underground Railroad Ride will take participants through some of the network’s major Iowa stations, starting in Tabor. The next day is the first of pedaling, taking riders about 68 miles to Lewis where they’ll spend the night before heading back to Tabor. The town of Red Oak, which has its own storied history, will be available as a stopover town both days.

“I think sometimes as a culture, we forget about history, and we forget how it’s relevant to today,” Rose said. She highlighted the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, which authorized the seizure of those who had escaped slavery, even in free states, and punished those that aided the escapees. “We had legislation that was criminalizing people who not only were trying to escape horrific slavery, we also had people being criminalized for assisting humankind in seeking freedom.”

Julia Rose, board president for NASW Iowa. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The history of the three towns during this period will be the focus of the stops. Tabor, for example, was founded on ideas of gender and race equality, and is home to the Lewis Hitchcock House which possesses a secret room in its basement for hiding travelers.

“It’s the stories of the people who are escaping slavery that are at center here,” Rose said. “And then it’s the stories of the people who also risked life and home and family in order to do what was right and didn’t just talk about it.”

The Underground Railroad Bike Ride will take bikers 136 total miles through the southwest corner of Iowa. As of print time, enrolling in the ride is $135, which covers the cost of breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, dinner Saturday night, SAG support, gear transportation and access to the campsite in Cold Springs.

Riders are responsible for bringing their own bike gear and tent. More information can be found at

The Iowa Underground Railroad Ride’s 2023 route

This article was originally published in Little Village’s September 2023 issue.

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