Underground Railroad

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This article describes historical escape routes for American slaves. See Public transportation for underground rail systems in the literal sense.

The Underground Railroad is a network of disparate historical routes used by African-American slaves to escape the United States and slavery by reaching freedom in Canada or other foreign territories. Today many of the stations along the "railroads" serve as museums and memorials to the former slaves' journey north.

Understand[edit]

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Map of Underground Railroad

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File:Underground Railroad Monument - Windsor, Ontario.JPG
The Tower of Freedom monument in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit

Template:Seealso From its birth as an independent nation in 1776 until the outbreak of Civil War over the issue in 1861, the United States was a nation where the institution of slavery caused bitter divisions. In the South, slavery was the linchpin of an agrarian economy fueled by massive plantations of cotton and other labor-intensive crops. Meanwhile, to the north lay states such as Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and all of New England, where slavery was illegal and an abolitionist movement morally (and economically) opposed to slavery thrived. Between them lay what were called the "border states", sprawled west to east across the middle of the country from Missouri through Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia to Delaware, where slavery was legal but controversially so, with abolitionist sympathies not unknown among the population.

By the mid-19th century, the fragile stalemate that had characterized North-South relations in earlier decades had given way to increasing tensions. A major flashpoint was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a federal law which allowed escaped slaves discovered in free states to be forcibly transported back to enslavement in the South. In the Northern states, which had already ended slavery within their own borders, the new law was perceived as a massive affront — all the more so as tales of violent abductions by professional slavecatchers began to spread among the public. As federal law could be applied to otherwise-free states over local objections, any escaped slaves who reached northern states suddenly had good reason to continue toward Canada, where slavery had long been outlawed — and various groups quickly found motivation, as a matter of principle or religious belief, to take substantial risks to assist their northward exodus.

Various routes were used by black slaves to escape to freedom. Some fled south from Texas to Mexico or from Florida to various points in the Caribbean, but the vast majority of routes headed north through free states into Canada or other British territories. A few fled across New Brunswick to Nova Scotia (an Africville ghetto existed in Halifax until the 1960s) but the shortest, most popular routes crossed Ohio, which separated slavery in Kentucky from freedom across Lake Erie in Upper Canada.

This exodus coincides with a huge speculative boom in construction of passenger rail as new technology (the Grand Trunk mainline from Montreal through Toronto opened in 1856), so this loosely-knit intermodal network readily adopted rail terminology. Those recruiting slaves to seek freedom were "agents", the hiding or resting stations along the way were "stations" with their homeowners "stationmasters" and those funding the efforts "stockholders". Abolitionist leaders were the "conductors", of whom the most famous was former slave Harriet Tubman, lauded for her efforts in leading three hundred from Maryland and Delaware through Philadelphia and northward across New York State to freedom in Canada. In some sections, "passengers" travelled by foot or concealed in horse carts heading north on dark winter nights; in others they travelled by boat or by conventional rail. Religious groups (such as the Quakers, the Society of Friends) were prominent in the abolitionist movement and songs popular among slaves referenced the biblical Exodus from Egypt. Effectively, Tubman was "Moses" and the Big Dipper and north star Polaris pointed to the promised land.

The Underground Railroad was relatively short-lived: the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 made a war zone out of much of the border states, rendering the already dangerous passage even more so while largely eliminating the need for an onward exodus from northern states to Canada; by 1865, the war was over and slavery had been eliminated nationwide. Still, it's remembered as a pivotal chapter in American history in general and African-American history in particular, with many former stations and other sites preserved as museums or historical attractions.

Prepare[edit]

File:Harriet Tubman late in life3.jpg
"Conductor" Harriet Tubman, aka "Moses"

While there are various routes and substantial variation in distance, the exodus following the path of Harriet Tubman covers more than {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} from Maryland and Delaware through Pennsylvania and New York to Ontario, Canada.

Historically, it was possible and relatively easy for citizens of either country to cross the U.S.-Canada border without a passport. In the 21st century, this is largely no longer true; border security has become more strict in the post-September 11, 2001 era.

Today, US nationals require a passport, U.S. passport card, Trusted Traveler Program card, or an enhanced driver’s license in order to return to the United States from Canada. Additional requirements apply to US permanent residents and third-country nationals; see the individual country articles (Canada#Get in and United States of America#Get in) or check the Canadian rules and U.S. rules for the documents required.

While the routes described here may be completed mostly overland, a historically-accurate portrayal of transport in the steam era would find road travel lagging dismally far behind the steam railways and ships which were the marvels of their day. The roads, such as they were, were little more than muddy dirt trails fit at best for a horse and cart; it was often more rapid to sail along the Atlantic Seaboard instead of attempting an equivalent overland route. A historically true Underground Railroad trip would be a bizarre intermodal mix of everything from horse carts to river barges to primitive freight trains to fleeing on foot or swimming across the Mississippi. At some points where routes historically crossed the Great Lakes, there is no scheduled ferry today.

The various books written after the Civil War (such as Wilbur Henry Siebert's The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom: A comprehensive history) describe hundreds of parallel routes and countless old homes which might have housed a "station" in the heyday of the exodus northward, but there is inherently no complete list of everything. As the network operated clandestinely, few contemporaneous records indicate with any certitude what exact role each individual figure or venue played — if any — in the antebellum era. Most of the original "stations" are merely old houses which look like any other home of the era; of those still standing, many are no longer preserved in a historically-accurate manner or are private residences which are no longer open to the voyager. A local or national historic register may list a dozen properties in a single county, but only a small minority are historic churches, museums, monuments or landmarks which invite visitors to do anything more than drive by and glimpse briefly from the outside.

This article lists many of the highlights but will inherently never be comprehensive.

Get in[edit]

The most common points of entry to the Underground Railroad network were border states which represented the division between free and slave: Maryland; Virginia, including what's now West Virginia; and Kentucky. Much of this territory is easily reached from Washington, D.C.. Tubman's journey, for instance, begins in Dorchester County, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and leads northward through Wilmington and Philadelphia.

I'll meet you in the morning. I'm bound for the promised land.

Go[edit]

There are multiple routes and multiple points of departure to board this train; those listed here are merely notable examples.{{#invoke:map | tag | type=mapframe | zoom=8 | align = right | show= mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | latitude=39.25 | longitude=-75.6

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Harriet Tubman's route (red markers)

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Tubman's Pennsylvania, Auburn and Niagara Railroad[edit]

This route leads through Pennsylvania and New York, through various sites associated with Underground Rail "conductor" Harriet Tubman (escaped 1849, active until 1860) and her contemporaries. Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten and whipped by her childhood masters; she escaped to Philadelphia in 1849. Returning to Maryland to rescue her family, she ultimately guided dozens of other slaves to freedom, travelling by night in extreme secrecy.

Maryland[edit]

Cambridge, Maryland — Tubman's birthplace, and the starting point of her route — is separated from Washington, D.C. by Chesapeake Bay and is approximately {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} southeast of the capital via US 50:

Delaware[edit]

As described to Wilbur Siebert in 1897, the portion of Tubman's path from {{#invoke:map | tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=Cambridge | url= | marker-symbol=-number-red | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|red}} | latitude=38.565 | longitude=-76.080 | zoom=17 | group=red | show = mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | image= | wikidata= | debug= }} north to Philadelphia appears to be a Template:Mi overland journey by road via {{#invoke:map | tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=East New Market | url= | marker-symbol=-number-red | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|red}} | latitude=38.596 | longitude=-75.924 | zoom=17 | group=red | show = 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An additional Template:Mi was required to reach {{#invoke:map | tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=Philadelphia | url= | marker-symbol=-number-red | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|red}} | latitude=39.952 | longitude=-75.170 | zoom=17 | group=red | show = mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | image= | wikidata= | debug= }}. The Delaware portion of the route is traced by the signed Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway, where various Underground Railroad sites are highlighted.

The dividing line between slave and free states was the Mason-Dixon line:

Pennsylvania[edit]

{{#invoke:map | tag | type=mapframe | zoom=7 | align = right | show= mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | latitude=41 | longitude=-77.7

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The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania

}} The first "free" state on the route, Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1847.

Philadelphia, the federal capital during much of George Washington's era, was a hotbed of abolitionism, and the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, passed by the state government in March 1780, was the first to prohibit further importation of slaves into a state. While a loophole exempted members of Congress at Philadelphia, George and Martha Washington (as slave owners) scrupulously avoided spending six months or more in Pennsylvania lest they be forced to give their slaves freedom. Ona Judge, the daughter of a slave inherited by Martha Washington, feared being taken forcibly back to Virginia at the end of Washington's presidency; with the aid of local free blacks and abolitionists she was put onto a ship to New Hampshire and liberty.

In 1849, Henry Brown (1815-1897) escaped Virginia slavery by arranging to have himself mailed in a wooden crate to abolitionists in Philadelphia. From there, he moved to England from 1850-1875 to escape the Fugitive Slave Act, becoming a magician, showman and outspoken abolitionist.

While Pennsylvania does border Canada across Lake Erie in its northwesternmost corner, freedom seekers arriving from eastern cities generally continued overland through New York State to Canada. While Harriet Tubman would have fled directly north from Philadelphia, many other passengers were crossing into Pennsylvania at multiple points along the Mason-Dixon line where the state bordered Maryland and a portion of Virginia (now West Virginia). This created many parallel lines which led north through central and western Pennsylvania into New York State's Southern Tier.

  • {{safesubst:#invoke:anchor|main}}{{#invoke:map

| tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=Fairfield Inn 1757 | url=http://www.thefairfieldinn.com | marker-symbol=-number-sleep | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|sleep}} | latitude=39.7870 | longitude=-77.3695 | zoom=17 | group=sleep | show = mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | image= | wikidata=Q5430313 | debug= }}, 15 W. Main St., Fairfield (8 miles/13 km west of Gettysburg via Route 116), {{#invoke:LinkPhone|LinkPhone|+1 717 642-5410}}. The oldest continuously operated inn in the Gettysburg area, dating to 1757. Slaves would hide on the third floor after crawling through openings and trap doors. Today, a window is cut out to reveal where the slaves hid when the inn was a "safe station" on the Underground Railroad. $160/night. Q5430313}} (Q5430313) on Wikidata Fairfield Inn (Fairfield, Pennsylvania) on Wikipedia{{#invoke:HiddenUnicode|HiddenUnicode|Fairfield Inn 175739.7870-77.3695http://www.thefairfieldinn.com15 W. Main St., Fairfield8 miles/13 km west of Gettysburg via Route 116+1 717 642-5410$160/nightThe oldest continuously operated inn in the Gettysburg area, dating to 1757. Slaves would hide on the third floor after crawling through openings and trap doors. Today, a window is cut out to reveal where the slaves hid when the inn was a "safe station" on the Underground Railroad.}}

The most popular option, however, was to follow the coast from Philadelphia to New York City en route to Albany or Boston.

New York State[edit]

Escaped slaves were on friendly turf in Upstate New York, one of the most staunchly abolitionist regions of the country.

{{#invoke:map | tag | type=mapframe | zoom=7 | align = center | show= mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | latitude=43.5 | longitude=-76.9

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The Underground Railroad in Upstate New York

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At Albany, multiple options existed. Fugitives could continue northward to Montreal or Quebec's Eastern Townships via Lake Champlain, or (more commonly) they could turn west along the Erie Canal line through Syracuse to Oswego, Rochester, Buffalo, or Niagara Falls.

File:Peterboro Land Office.jpg
Land office, Gerrit Smith Estate, Peterboro

Syracuse was an abolitionist stronghold whose central location made it a "great central depot on the Underground Railroad" through which many slaves passed on their way to liberty.

In this area, passengers arriving from Pennsylvania across the Southern Tier travelled through Ithaca and Cayuga Lake to join the main route at Auburn, a town west of Syracuse on US 20. Harriet Tubman lived here starting in 1859, establishing a home for the aged.

File:Tubman grave.jpg
Tubman's final resting place, Auburn

The main route continues westward toward Buffalo and Niagara Falls, which remains the busiest set of crossings on the Ontario-New York border today. (Alternate routes involved crossing Lake Ontario from Oswego or Rochester.)

Rochester, home to Frederick Douglass and a bevy of other abolitionists, also afforded escapees passage to Canada, if they were able to make their way to Kelsey's Landing just north of the Lower Falls of the Genesee. There were a number of safehouses in the city, including Douglass' own home.

File:Rail Road Suspension Bridge Near Niagara Falls v2.jpg
The Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge in 1856

Ontario's entire international boundary is water. There were a few ferries in places like Buffalo, but infrastructure was sparse. Niagara Falls had an {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} railway suspension bridge joining the Canadian and U.S. twin towns below the falls.

To the north is Lewiston, a possible crossing point to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada:

{{safesubst:#invoke:anchor|main}}To the south is Buffalo, opposite Fort Erie in Ontario:

As mentioned earlier, some escapees instead approached from the south, passing from western Pennsylvania through the Southern Tier toward the border.

Ontario[edit]

The end of the line is St. Catharines in Ontario's Niagara Region.

The Niagara Region is now part of the Golden Horseshoe, the most densely-populated portion of the province. Further afield, the Toronto Transit Commission ( {{#invoke:LinkPhone|LinkPhone|+1 416-393-INFO}}) has run an annual Underground Freedom Train Ride to commemorate Emancipation Day. The train leaves Union Station in downtown Toronto in time to reach Sheppard West (the former northwest end of the line) just after midnight on August 1. Celebrations include singing, poetry readings and drum playing.

The Ohio Line[edit]

Kentucky, a slave state, is separated from Indiana and Ohio by the Ohio River. Because of Ohio's location (which borders the southernmost point in Canada across Lake Erie), multiple parallel lines led north across the state to freedom in Upper Canada. Some passed through Indiana to Ohio, while others entered Ohio directly from Kentucky.

Indiana[edit]

File:Town Clock Church.jpg
Town Clock Church

Directly across the river from Louisville, Kentucky, the town of New Albany served as one of the principal river crossing points for fugitives heading north.

Indianapolis is {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} to the north; Fishers and Westfield are among its suburbs.

Westfield is a great town for walking tours; the Westfield-Washington Historical Society (see below) can provide background information. Historic Indiana Ghost Walks & Tours ( {{#invoke:LinkPhone|LinkPhone|+1 317 840-6456}}) also covers "ghosts of the Underground Railroad" on one of its Westfield tours (reservations required, check schedule).

From the Indianapolis area, the route splits: you can either head east into Ohio or north into Michigan.{{safesubst:#invoke:anchor|main}}

Another option is to head north from Kentucky directly into Ohio.

Ohio[edit]

The stations listed here form a meandering line through Ohio's major cities — Cincinnati to Dayton to Columbus to Cleveland to Toledo — and around Lake Erie to Detroit, a journey of approximately {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}}. In practice, Underground Railroad passengers would head due north and cross Lake Erie at the first possible opportunity via any of multiple parallel routes.

File:National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.JPG
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

From Lexington, Kentucky, you head north {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} on this freedom train to Covington. Directly across the Ohio River and the state line is Cincinnati, one of many points at which thousands crossed into the North in search of freedom.

{{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} to the east, Williamsburg and Clermont County were home to multiple stations on the Underground Railroad. {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} north is Springboro, just south of Dayton in Warren County.

File:Springboro Historical Society.JPG
Springboro Historical Society Museum

East of Dayton, one former station is now a tavern.

  • {{#invoke:map

| tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=Ye Olde Trail Tavern | url=https://www.oldetrailtavern.com/ | marker-symbol=-number-eat | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|eat}} | latitude=39.806 | longitude=-83.889 | zoom=17 | group=eat | show = mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | image= | wikidata= | debug= }}, 228 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs, {{#invoke:LinkPhone|LinkPhone|+1 937 767-7448}}. Su-Th 11AM-10PM, F-Sa 11AM-11PM; closes an hour early Oct-Mar. Kick back with a cold beer and nosh on bar snacks with an upscale twist in this 1844 log cabin that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Mains $8-12.{{#invoke:HiddenUnicode|HiddenUnicode|Ye Olde Trail Tavern39.806-83.889https://www.oldetrailtavern.com/228 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs+1 937 767-7448Su-Th 11AM-10PM, F-Sa 11AM-11PM; closes an hour early Oct-MarMains $8-12Kick back with a cold beer and nosh on bar snacks with an upscale twist in this 1844 log cabin that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.}}

Continue east {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} through Columbus and onward to Zanesville, then detour north via Route 60.

Another {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} to the northeast is Alliance. {{#invoke:map | tag | type=mapframe | zoom=6 | align = right | show= mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | latitude=40.5 | longitude=-84

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The Underground Railroad in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan

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The next town to the north is {{#invoke:map | tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=Kent | url= | marker-symbol=-number-see | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|see}} | latitude=41.15 | longitude=-81.35 | zoom=17 | group=see | show = mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | image= | wikidata= | debug= }}, the home of Kent State University, which was a waypoint on the Underground Railroad back when the village was still named Franklin Mills. {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} further north is the Lake Erie shoreline, east of Cleveland. From there, travellers had a few possible options: attempt to cross Lake Erie directly into Canada, head east through western Pennsylvania and onward to Buffalo...

...or turn west.

West of Lorain is Sandusky, one of the foremost jumping-off points for escaped slaves on the final stage of their journey to freedom. Among those who set off across Lake Erie from here toward Canada was Josiah Henson, whose autobiography served as inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Modern-day voyagers can retrace that journey via the MV Jiimaan[dead link], a seasonal ferry plying the route from Sandusky to Leamington and Kingsville, Ontario, or else stop in to the Lake Erie Shores & Islands Welcome Center at 4424 Milan Rd. and pick up a brochure with a free self-guided walking tour of Sandusky-area Underground Railroad sites.

As an alternative to crossing the lake here, voyagers could continue westward through Toledo to Detroit.

Michigan[edit]

Detroit was the last American stop for travellers on this route: directly across the river lies Windsor, Ontario.

If Detroit was "Midnight" on the Underground Railroad, Windsor was "Dawn". A literal underground railroad does stretch across the river from Detroit to Windsor, along with another one to the north between Port Huron and Sarnia, but since 2004 the tunnels have served only freight. A ferry crosses here for large trucks only. An underground road tunnel also runs to Windsor, complete with a municipal Tunnel Bus service (C$4/person, one way).

There is a safehouse {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} north of Detroit (on the U.S. side) in Washington Township:

Ontario[edit]

The most period-appropriate way to replicate the crossing into Canada used to be the Bluewater Ferry across the St. Clair River between Marine City, Michigan and Sombra, Ontario. The ferry no longer operates. Instead, cross from Detroit to Windsor via the Ambassador Bridge or the aforementioned tunnel, or else detour north to the Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia.

  • {{#invoke:map

| tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=Emancipation Day Celebration | url=http://edcw.ca/ | marker-symbol=-number-do | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|do}} | latitude=42.3101 | longitude=-83.0152 | zoom=17 | group=do | show = mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | image= | wikidata= | debug= }}, Lanspeary Park, Windsor. Held annually on the first Saturday and Sunday in August from 2-10PM, "The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth" commemorates the Emancipation Act of 1833, which abolished slavery in Canada as well as throughout the British Empire. Live music, yummy food, and family-friendly entertainment abound. Admission free, "entertainment area" with live music $5 per person/$20 per family.{{#invoke:HiddenUnicode|HiddenUnicode|Emancipation Day Celebration42.3101-83.0152http://edcw.ca/Lanspeary Park, WindsorAdmission free, "entertainment area" with live music $5 per person/$20 per familyHeld annually on the first Saturday and Sunday in August from 2-10PM, "The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth" commemorates the Emancipation Act of 1833, which abolished slavery in Canada as well as throughout the British Empire. Live music, yummy food, and family-friendly entertainment abound.}}

Amherstburg, just south of Windsor, was also a destination for runaway slaves.

Following the signed African-Canadian Heritage Tour eastward from Windsor, you soon come to the so-called "Black Mecca" of Chatham, which after the Underground Railroad began quickly became — and to a certain extent remains — a bustling centre of African-Canadian life.

File:Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site 01.JPG
Josiah Henson's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" site, Dresden

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Across the Land of Lincoln[edit]

Though Illinois was de jure a free state, Southern cultural influence and sympathy for the institution of slavery was very strong in its southernmost reaches (even to this day, the local culture in Cairo and other far-downstate communities bears more resemblance to the Mississippi Delta than Chicago). Thus, the fate of fugitive slaves passing through Illinois was variable: near the borders of Missouri and Kentucky the danger of being abducted and forcibly transported back to slavery was very high, while those who made it further north would notice a marked decrease in the local tolerance for slave catchers.

The Mississippi River was a popular Underground Railroad route in this part of the country; a voyager travelling north from Memphis would pass between the slave-holding states of Missouri and Kentucky to arrive Template:Mi later at Cairo, a fork in the river. From there, the Mississippi continued northward through St. Louis while the Ohio River ran along the Ohio-Kentucky border to Cincinnati and beyond.

Placing fugitives onto vessels on the Mississippi was a monumental risk that figured prominently in the literature of the era. There was even a "Reverse Underground Railroad" used by antebellum slave catchers to kidnap free blacks and fugitives from free states to sell them back into slavery.

Because of its location on the Mississippi River, St. Louis was directly on the boundary between slaveholding Missouri and abolitionist Illinois.

{{#invoke:map | tag | type=mapframe | zoom=6 | align = right | show= mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | latitude=38.8 | longitude=-89.65

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The Underground Railroad in Illinois

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  • {{safesubst:#invoke:anchor|main}}{{#invoke:map

| tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing | url=https://www.facebook.com/MaryMeachumFreedomCrossing/ | marker-symbol=-number-do | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|do}} | latitude=38.6791 | longitude=-90.1927 | zoom=17 | group=do | show = mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | image= | wikidata=Q22018959 | debug= }}, 28 E Grand Ave., St. Louis, Missouri, {{#invoke:LinkPhone|LinkPhone|+1 314 584-6703}}. The Rev. John Berry Meachum of St. Louis' First African Baptist Church arrived in St. Louis in 1815 after purchasing his freedom from slavery. Ordered to stop holding classes in his church under an 1847 Missouri law prohibiting education of people of color, he instead circumvented the restriction by teaching on a Mississippi riverboat. His widow Mary Meachum was arrested early in the morning of May 21, 1855 with a small group of runaway slaves and their guides who were attempting to cross the Mississippi River to freedom. These events are commemorated each May with a historical reenactment of the attempted crossing by actors in period costume, along with poetry, music, dance, and dramatic performances. Even if you're not in town for the festival, you can still stop by the rest area alongside the St. Louis Riverfront Trail and take in the colorful wall mural and historic plaques. Q22018959}} (Q22018959) on Wikidata Mary Meachum on Wikipedia{{#invoke:HiddenUnicode|HiddenUnicode|Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing38.6791-90.1927https://www.facebook.com/MaryMeachumFreedomCrossing/28 E Grand Ave., St. Louis, Missouri+1 314 584-6703The Rev. John Berry Meachum of St. Louis' First African Baptist Church arrived in St. Louis in 1815 after purchasing his freedom from slavery. Ordered to stop holding classes in his church under an 1847 Missouri law prohibiting education of people of color, he instead circumvented the restriction by teaching on a Mississippi riverboat. His widow Mary Meachum was arrested early in the morning of May 21, 1855 with a small group of runaway slaves and their guides who were attempting to cross the Mississippi River to freedom. These events are commemorated each May with a historical reenactment of the attempted crossing by actors in period costume, along with poetry, music, dance, and dramatic performances. Even if you're not in town for the festival, you can still stop by the rest area alongside the St. Louis Riverfront Trail and take in the colorful wall mural and historic plaques.}}

Author Mark Twain, whose iconic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) describes a freedom-seeking Mississippi voyage downriver to New Orleans, grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a short distance upriver from St. Louis. Hannibal, in turn, is not far from Quincy, Illinois, where freedom seekers would often attempt to cross the Mississippi directly.

Template:Mi east of Quincy is Jacksonville, once a major crossroads of at least three different Underground Railroad routes, many of which carried passengers fleeing from St. Louis. Several of the former stations still stand. The Morgan County Historical Society runs a Sunday afternoon bus tour twice annually (spring and fall) from Illinois College to Woodlawn Farm with guides in period costume.

File:Beecher Hall.jpg
Beecher Hall, the oldest college building in Illinois.

Template:Mi further east is the state capital of {{#invoke:map | tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=Springfield | url= | marker-symbol=-number-see | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|see}} | latitude=39.80 | longitude=-89.65 | zoom=17 | group=see | show = mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | image= | wikidata= | debug= }}, the longtime home and final resting place of Abraham Lincoln. During the time of the Underground Railroad, he was a local attorney and rising star in the fledgling Republican Party who was most famous as Congressman Stephen Douglas' sparring partner in an 1858 statewide debate tour where slavery and other matters were discussed. However, Lincoln was soon catapulted from relative obscurity onto the national stage with his win in the 1860 Presidential election, going on to shepherd the nation through the Civil War and issue the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves once and for all.

From Springfield, one could turn north through Bloomington and Princeton to Chicago, or continue east through Indiana to Ohio or Michigan.

From Chicago (or points across the Wisconsin border such as Racine or Milwaukee), travel onward would be by water across the Great Lakes.

Into the Maritime Provinces[edit]

Another route, less used but still significant, led from New England through New Brunswick to Nova Scotia, mainly from Boston to Halifax. Though the modern-day Maritime Provinces did not become part of Canada until 1867, they were within the British Empire, and thus slavery was illegal there too.

One possible route (following the coast from Philadelphia through Boston to Halifax) would be to head north through New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine to reach New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

  • {{#invoke:map

| tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=Wedgwood Inn | url=https://www.wedgwoodinn.com/home.html | marker-symbol=-number-sleep | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|sleep}} | latitude=40.3638 | longitude=-74.9563 | zoom=17 | group=sleep | show = mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | image= | wikidata= | debug= }}, 111 W. Bridge St., New Hope, Pennsylvania, {{#invoke:LinkPhone|LinkPhone|+1 215 862-2570}}. Located in Bucks County some {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} northeast of Philadelphia, New Hope is a town whose importance on the Underground Railroad came thanks to its ferry across the Delaware River, which escaped slaves would use to pass into New Jersey on their northward journey — and this Victorian bed and breakfast was one of the stations where they'd spend the night beforehand. Of course, modern-day travellers sleep in one of eight quaintly-decorated guest rooms, but if you like, your hosts will show you the trapdoor that leads to the subterranean tunnel system where slaves once hid. Standard rooms with fireplace $120-250/night, Jacuzzi suites $200-350/night.{{#invoke:HiddenUnicode|HiddenUnicode|Wedgwood Inn40.3638-74.9563https://www.wedgwoodinn.com/home.html111 W. Bridge St., New Hope, Pennsylvania+1 215 862-2570Standard rooms with fireplace $120-250/night, Jacuzzi suites $200-350/nightLocated in Bucks County some {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} northeast of Philadelphia, New Hope is a town whose importance on the Underground Railroad came thanks to its ferry across the Delaware River, which escaped slaves would use to pass into New Jersey on their northward journey — and this Victorian bed and breakfast was one of the stations where they'd spend the night beforehand. Of course, modern-day travellers sleep in one of eight quaintly-decorated guest rooms, but if you like, your hosts will show you the trapdoor that leads to the subterranean tunnel system where slaves once hid.}}

With its densely wooded landscape, abundant population of Quaker abolitionists, and regularly spaced towns, South Jersey was a popular east-coast Underground Railroad stopover. Swedesboro, with a sizable admixture of free black settlers to go along with the Quakers, was a particular hub.

New York City occupied a mixed role in the history of American slavery: while New York was a free state, many in the city's financial community had dealings with the southern states and Tammany Hall, the far-right political machine that effectively controlled the city Democratic Party, was notoriously sympathetic to slaveholding interests. It was a different story in what are now the outer boroughs, which were home to a thriving free black population and many churches and religious groups that held strong abolitionist beliefs.

New England[edit]

{{#invoke:map | tag | type=mapframe | zoom=6 | align = right | show= mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | latitude=43.67 | longitude=-69.33

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The Underground Railroad in New England and the Maritimes

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File:Slave kidnap post 1851 boston.jpg
An 1851 poster warning of slave catchers

Boston was a major seaport and an abolitionist stronghold. Some freedom seekers arrived overland, others as stowaways aboard coastal trading vessels from the South. The Boston Vigilance Committee (1841-1861), an abolitionist organization founded by the city's free black population to protect their people from abduction into slavery, spread the word when slave catchers came to town. They worked closely with Underground Railroad conductors to provide freedom seekers with transportation, shelter, medical attention and legal counsel. Hundreds of escapees stayed a short time before moving on to Canada, England or other British territories.

The National Park Service offers a ranger-led Template:Mi Boston Black Heritage Trail tour through Boston's Beacon Hill district, near the Massachusetts State House and Boston Common. Several old houses in this district were stations on the line, but are not open to the public.

A museum is open in a former meeting house and school:

Once in Boston, most escaped slaves boarded ships headed directly to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. A few crossed Vermont or New Hampshire into Lower Canada, eventually reaching Montreal...

...while others continued to follow the coastal routes overland into Maine.

File:Chamberlain Freedom Park, Brewer, Maine image 11.jpg
Chamberlain Freedom Park, Brewer, Maine

New Brunswick and Nova Scotia[edit]

Once across the border, a few black families settled in places like Upper Kent along the Saint John River in New Brunswick. Many more continued onward to Nova Scotia, then a separate British colony but now part of Canada's Maritime Provinces.

  • {{#invoke:map

| tag | type=maplink | geotype=Point | ismarker=yes | title=Tomlinson Lake Hike to Freedom | url=http://tomlinsonlakehiketofreedom.ca | marker-symbol=-number-do | marker-color={{#invoke:TypeToColor|convert|do}} | latitude=46.7312 | longitude=-67.7717 | zoom=17 | group=do | show = mask,around,buy,city,do,drink,eat,go,listing,other,see,sleep,vicinity,view,black,blue,brown,chocolate,forestgreen,gold,gray,grey,lime,magenta,maroon,mediumaquamarine,navy,red,royalblue,silver,steelblue,teal,fuchsia | image= | wikidata= | debug= }}, Glenburn Rd., Carlingford, New Brunswick (7.2 km/4.5 miles west of Perth-Andover via Route 190). first Sa in Oct. After successfully crossing the border into New Brunswick, the first order of business for many escaped slaves on this route was to seek out the home of Sgt. William Tomlinson, a British-born lumberjack and farmer who was well known for welcoming slaves who came through this area. Every year, the fugitives' cross-border trek to Tomlinson Lake is retraced with a Template:Km family-friendly, all-ages-and-skill-levels "hike to freedom" in the midst of the beautiful autumn foliage the region boasts. Gather at the well-signed trailhead on Glenburn Road, and at the end of the line you can sit down to a hearty traditional meal, peruse the exhibits at an Underground Railroad pop-up museum, or do some more hiking on a series of nature trails around the lake. There's even a contest for the best 1850s-period costumes. Free.{{#invoke:HiddenUnicode|HiddenUnicode|Tomlinson Lake Hike to Freedom46.7312-67.7717http://tomlinsonlakehiketofreedom.caGlenburn Rd., Carlingford, New Brunswick7.2 km/4.5 miles west of Perth-Andover via Route 190first Sa in OctFreeAfter successfully crossing the border into New Brunswick, the first order of business for many escaped slaves on this route was to seek out the home of Sgt. William Tomlinson, a British-born lumberjack and farmer who was well known for welcoming slaves who came through this area. Every year, the fugitives' cross-border trek to Tomlinson Lake is retraced with a Template:Km family-friendly, all-ages-and-skill-levels "hike to freedom" in the midst of the beautiful autumn foliage the region boasts. Gather at the well-signed trailhead on Glenburn Road, and at the end of the line you can sit down to a hearty traditional meal, peruse the exhibits at an Underground Railroad pop-up museum, or do some more hiking on a series of nature trails around the lake. There's even a contest for the best 1850s-period costumes.}}

Halifax, the final destination of most fugitive slaves passing out of Boston, still has a substantial mostly-black district populated by descendants of Underground Railroad passengers.

Stay safe[edit]

Then[edit]

With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act by Congress in 1850, slaves who had escaped to the northern states were in immediate danger of being forcibly abducted and brought back to southern slavery. Slave catchers from the south operated openly in the northern states, where their brutality quickly alienated the locals. Federal officials were also best carefully avoided, as the influence of plantation owners from the then more populous South was powerful in Washington at the time.

Slaves therefore had to lie low during the day — hiding, sleeping or pretending to be working for local masters — and move north by night. The further north, the longer and colder those winter nights became. The danger of encountering U.S. federal marshals would end once the Canadian border had been crossed, but the passengers of the Underground Railroad would need to remain in Canada (and keep a watchful eye for slave catchers crossing the border in violation of Canadian law) until slavery was ended via the American Civil War of the 1860s.

Even after the end of slavery, racial struggles would continue for at least another century, and "travelling while black" continued to be something of a dangerous proposition. The Negro Motorist Green Book, which listed businesses safe for African-American travellers (nominally) nationwide, would remain in print in New York City from 1936 to 1966; nonetheless, in more than a few "sundown towns" there was nowhere for a traveller of color to stay for the night.

Now[edit]

Today, the slave catchers are gone and the federal authorities now stand against various forms of racial segregation in interstate commerce. While an ordinary degree of caution remains advisable on this journey, the primary modern risk is crime when traveling through major cities, not slavery or segregation.

Go next[edit]

File:"Underground" routes to Canada (Siebert 1898).png
There are hundreds of routes to freedom

Then[edit]

Only a small minority of successful escapees stayed in Canada for the long haul. Despite the fact that slavery was illegal there, racism and nativism were as much a problem as anywhere else. As time went on and more and more escaped slaves poured across the border, they began to wear out their welcome among white Canadians. The refugees usually arrived with only the clothes on their backs, unprepared for the harsh Canadian winters, and lived a destitute existence isolated from their new neighbors. In time, some African-Canadians prospered in farming or business and ended up staying behind in their new home, but at the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, many former fugitives jumped at the chance to join the Union army and play a role in the liberation of the compatriots they'd left behind in the South. Even Harriet Tubman herself left her home in St. Catharines to enlist as a cook, medic, and scout. Others simply drifted back to the U.S. because they were sick of living in an unfamiliar place far from their friends and loved ones.

Now[edit]

  • If you've gone the East Coast route, you'd be remiss not to explore the Atlantic Provinces, where whale-watching, gorgeous seaside scenery, tasty seafood, and Celtic cultural influences abound.

See also[edit]

This itinerary to {{#Invoke:BASICPAGENAME|BASICPAGENAME}} has guide status. It has good, detailed information covering the entire route. Please contribute and help us make it a star!

{{#assessment:itinerary|guide}}

{{#isin:North America itineraries}}


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