Dresden is an agricultural community in southwestern Ontario, Canada, part of the municipality of Chatham-Kent. Dresden is best known as the home of Josiah Henson, the former U.S. slave whose life story was the inspiration for the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It has been, therefore, characterized as the “Terminus of the Underground Railroad”, although many escaped slaves were known to gather, at least to worship, as far south and east as what is today Chatham, Ontario. The Henson homestead is a historic site located near what is today the town of Dresden, and is owned and operated by the Ontario Heritage Trust. Dresden is located on the Sydenham River. The community is named after Dresden, Germany. The major crops in the area are wheat, soybeans, corn and tomatoes.
Dresden is rich in features of interest to visitors and the local population. As an important terminus of the Underground Railroad via overland and marine routes the town was part of a settlement formerly known as the Dawn Settlement. It is the site of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, which lies just outside its borders at the corner of Park St. and Uncle Tom’s Road (the former 3rd concession). The town and its many organizations including the Horticultural Society, Rotary and IODE, have striven to develop the town’s historical legacy and its natural features, particularly the Sydneham River. Dresden’s floodplain area, since a 100 year flood in 1968, has been constantly improved with the addition of beautifully landscaped parklands, an arboretum featuring the area’s original and diverse Carolinian flora, and the Trillium Trail which includes a historical walk portion. The gateway to the Trillium Trail with its eight interpretive signs can be accessed at St. George St. in the heart of the town, near the bridge. The trail itself features 20 plaques which point out historical sites along a bricked path. The trail celebrates history which is both typical to small rural towns of the period and unique to Dresden’s ties to the Underground Railroad story. Guides to the trail are available at the town’s Service Centre at the corner of Main and St. George St.
Dresden was once home to not only Rev. Josiah Henson famous because of his association with the title character of Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but a variety of prominent figures from the Underground Railroad period. A recent discovery through the Trillium Trail Project which has been verified by research done in partnership with the Promised Land Project, headed by Boulou de B’beri of the University of Ottawa, is that large sections of the original town site were owned between 1853 and 1873 by William Whipper, a prominent member of the William Still Underground Railroad network. Today a number of artifact houses from this time period are still extant in the community. The local Catherine McVean Chapter of the IODE offers historical tours to visitors who wish to know more of the town’s history. The town is also home to civil rights actions both in the 1850s and 1950s, and this and other historical events are commemorated on various Ontario Heritage historical plaques in the town.
The Sydenham River which flows through the town, is known for its rare fauna, and the Trillium Trail, particularly in the downtown’s arboretum area features signage that educates on rare plants and animals that live here.
The town features a number of special events each year, including a Show and Shine for classic autos, and weekly concerts on Thursday evenings during the summer months at Rotary Park.
Dresden is also the location of the Dresden Raceway, the only harness racing facility in the municipality of Chatham-Kent. It features a 1/2-mile track and modern grandstand facility. The track also serves as a training facility for young pacers and trotters. Dresden is also home to the Dresden Slots operated by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. It is also the only slots facility in the municipality.
The downtown area runs for about 3 blocks, with stores and businesses that serve the local and surrounding community and tourists. For a bit of colour, the streets are lined with planters courtesy of the Dresden Horticultural Society and many volunteers. In October, just before Halloween, there are cornstalk and scarecrow decorations on the lampposts. There is a grocery store, a drug store, jewellery and gifts, photography studio, a Sears outlet, post office, automotive supplies, dentist, doctors, optometrist, a gym, legal advice, and more. A new medical facility, operated by the Chatham-Kent Family Health Team, opened in 2012.