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Underground Railroad

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This article describes historical escape routes for American slaves. See Urban rail for underground rail systems.

The Underground Railroad is a network of disparate historical routes used to escape the United States of America and slavery to reach freedom in Canada.

In 1793 Upper Canada (now Ontario) passed an act that banned import of new slaves and required that children of slaves be freed at 25, a compromise solution that would have eliminated slavery in a generation but in the meanwhile allowed slave owners to keep their slaves. Then in 1808 the British Empire banned the slave trade, but not slavery itself. In 1834 the Empire banned slavery except in parts of British India, and on August 1, 1843 the last exception was removed. Freedom had prevailed.

The United States, however, remained bitterly divided on the question of slavery; a conflict which culminated in the outbreak of the US Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Law, an 1850 federal act which allowed slave catchers to violently abduct escaped slaves in free states and forcibly transport them back to Southern enslavement, was offensive to the public in Northern states which had already ended slavery within their own borders. As federal law could be applied to otherwise-free states over local objections, any slaves who reached northern states had good reason to continue toward Canada.

By the time London's Metropolitan Line ran as the first literal Underground train in 14 September 1862, the work of this virtual and clandestine "underground railroad" was largely complete. The April 1861 outbreak of the Civil War ended the ability of slave catchers to operate freely in the northern Union states; slaves who had fled to the promised land of Canada in the 1850s were free to return to join the Union army and wage war on their former Southern masters in the 1860s. The legacy of segregation and discrimination would still be alive a century later as a target of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but the flood of fugitive slaves northward to Canada had been stemmed.


Underground Railroad Monument in Windsor, across the river from Detroit

A string of slave states sprawled west-east across the middle of the country from Missouri through Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia to Delaware. To the north lay free states such as Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and all of New England. To the south lay what would become the Confederate States of America, a group of slaveholding states. The further south, the worse conditions became. Confederate attempts at secession from the US ultimately led to the American Civil War, fought from April 12, 1861 – May 10, 1865.

Various routes were used by black slaves to escape to freedom, such as Texas to Mexico or Florida to various points in the Caribbean, but most led north through northern free states into Southwestern Ontario or other parts of Canada. 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 Ontario.

"Conductor" Harriet Tubman, aka "Moses"

This exodus coincides with a huge speculative boom in construction of passenger rail as new technology (the Grand Trunk mainline from Montréal 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 Exodus of Moses biblical flight from Egypt. Effectively, Tubman was "Moses" and the Big Dipper and north star Polaris pointed to the promised land.


While there are various routes and substantial variation in distance, the exodus following the path of Harriet Tubman covers more than 500 miles (900km) 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 US-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, nationals of the United States do not need a passport or an Electronic Travel Authorization in order to visit Canada; however, they 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. United States Permanent Residents require an Electronic Travel Authorization in order to visit Canada, and both their passport and their U.S. visa and/or alternate or additional travel documents in order to return to the United States. If you reside in another country, or you don't know what some of these documents are, check the Canadian rules and US rules for the documents required.

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, DC. Tubman's journey, for instance, begins in Dorchester County, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and leads northward through Wilmington (Delaware) and Philadelphia.

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


There are multiple routes and multiple points of departure to board this train; those listed here are merely notable examples.

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

Map of Underground Railroad

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.

Cambridge (Maryland) is separated from Washington DC by Chesapeake Bay and is approximately 90 miles (150km) southeast of the capital on US 50:

Her path from Cambridge MD to Philadelphia PA,[1] as described to Wilbur Siebert in 1897, appears to be 1 Cambridge - 2 East New Market - 3 Poplar Neck, Maryland to 4 Sandtown - 5 Willow Grove - 6 Camden - 7 Dover - 8 Smyrna - 9 Blackbird - 10 Odessa - 11 New Castle - 12 Wilmington, Delaware as a 120 mi (190 km) overland journey by road. An additional 30 mi (48 km) was required to reach 13 Philadelphia.

Freedom train to Canada

A signed Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway currently crosses Maryland and Delaware, passing various Underground Railroad sites before exiting Centerville DE to Pennsylvania.

  • 3 Appoquinimink Friends Meetinghouse, West Main Street (Route 299), Odessa, Delaware. 1st & 3rd Sundays of each month, 11am.. 1785 brick Quaker house of prayer which served as a station on the Underground Railroad under John Hunn and Thomas Garrett. A second story had a removable panel leading to spaces under the eaves; a cellar originally was reached by a small side opening at ground level. Appoquinimink Friends Meetinghouse on Wikipedia

The first "free" state on the route is Pennsylvania:

  • 4 Johnson House Historical Site, 6306 Germantown Ave, +1 215-438-1768. Former safe house and tavern in the Germantown area, frequented by Harriet Tubman and William Still, one of 17 Underground Railroad stations in Pennsylvania listed in a local guide "Underground Railroad: Trail to Freedom". Still was an African-American abolitionist, clerk and member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. William Still's Last Residence, a common waypoint for northbound Underground Railroad passengers through Philadelphia, still stands but is not open to the public. John Johnson House (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on Wikipedia
  • 5 Belmont Mansion, 2000 Belmont Mansion Drive 19131-3713, +1 215-878-8844. 11am-5pm Tu-Fr, summer weekends by appointment. Historic Philadelphia mansion with Underground Railroad museum. $7, student/senior $5. Belmont Mansion (Philadelphia) on Wikipedia
  • 6 Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, 119 N. 10th St, Reading (Old Bethel African Methodist Church), +1 610-371-8713, fax: +1 610-371-8739. 10:30-1:30 We, Fr; 1-4pm Sat. Local history of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. $4. Bethel A.M.E. Church (Reading, Pennsylvania) on Wikipedia
  • 7 Christiana Underground Railroad Center, 11 Green St, Christiana, +1 610-593-5340. 9am-4pm wkdys. Museum in former hotel, records the September 11, 1851 trial of 38 citizens charged with treason for their participation in The Resistance at Christiana against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. free.

From Pennsylvania, passengers would have headed north via various routes to New York State.

  • 8 St. James AME Zion Church, 116 Cleveland Ave, Ithaca, +1 607-272-4053. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was established in the early 1800s in New York City as a subgroup of the Methodist Episcopal Church to serve black parishioners who at the time encountered overt racism in existing churches. St. James, founded 1836, was a station on the Underground Railroad and in 1906 hosted a group of students founding Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's oldest official Black fraternity.

The route led north from Ithaca through Cayuga Lake to Auburn. Tubman retired to Auburn (New York) in 1859, establishing a home for the aged. Auburn is west of Syracuse on US 20.

  • 9 Harriet Tubman Home,, 180 South St, Auburn, +1 315 252-2081. Known as "The Moses of Her People," Tubman settled in Auburn after the Civil War and operated this home for the aged and indigent blacks. As a conductor on the Underground Railroad - a network of abolitionists that helped slaves escape to freedom - she made a dozen trips south over a period of 11 years. Tubman died in 1913 at her South Street property, and is buried at the Fort Hill Cemetery.
  • 10 Fort Hill Cemetery,, 19 Fort St, Auburn, +1 315 253-8132. Set on a hill overlooking Auburn, this site was used for burial mounds by Native Americans as early as 1100 A.D. It includes the burial sites of William Seward, Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright, Col. Myles Keogh who fought with Gen. Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and a monument to Indian orator Chief Logan.

From Auburn, the main route turns westward toward Buffalo-Niagara. (Alternate routes involved crossing by water from Oswego or Rochester.)

In an era when most US access to Ontario was by water, Niagara Falls had an 825-foot railway suspension bridge joining the Canadian and US twin towns below the falls.

  • A 11 Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Interpretive Center. is planned for the former US custom house (1863-1962) at 2245 Whirlpool St, Niagara Falls NY beside the Whirlpool Bridge. Intended as a gateway to the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery history of the area, it is expected to open in 2018; the new Amtrak station (adjacent) opened in July 2016.
  • 12 Castellani Art Museum, 5795 Lewiston Road, Niagara University NY 14109, +1 716 286-8200, fax: +1 716 286-8289. Art museum on university campus. “Freedom Crossing: The Underground Railroad in Greater Niagara” exhibit recalls the story of the Underground Railroad Movement in Buffalo-Niagara.
  • Freedom Crossing (Suspension bridge site), Niagara Falls. Built in 1848 as a carriage and footbridge and operated as a rail bridge from 1855-1897, the first suspension bridge across the lower Niagara gorge served as a freedom crossing to bring Harriet Tubman the final step from slavery in Bucktown, Maryland to a first home in St. Catharines in 1849. After 1855 it became a major route for escaping slaves hidden aboard Northern Central Railroad cattle or baggage cars. The site is now the Whirlpool Bridge.

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

  • 13 First Presbyterian Church and Village cemetery (1835), 505 Cayuga St, Lewiston (at South 5th St.). This church played a prominent role in the Underground Railroad; a sculpture in front of the church commemorates the site.
  • 14 Freedom Crossing Monument. Five bronze sculptures depict a family of freedom seekers and Lewiston's Underground Railroad station master Josiah Tryon on the bank of the Niagara River. Tryon's brother Amos built The House of the Seven Cellars at 4772 Lower River Road in 1830, but his wife Sally Barton refused to move there. The house, built on the side of a steep riverside embankment with multi-levelled interconnecting basements, proved an ideal staging point for slaves crossing the Niagara River to Canada. A series of steps led down the high riverbank to Tryon's waiting rowboat. The house itself is not publicly accessible, but is mentioned in Margaret Goff Clark's 1969 book "Freedom Crossing". Freedom Crossing Monument on Wikipedia

To the south is Buffalo, opposite Fort Erie in Ontario:

  • 15 Michigan Street Baptist Church, 511 Michigan Avenue, Buffalo. Oldest property continuously owned, operated, and occupied by African-Americans in Western New York, served as a station on the Underground Railroad.
  • 16 Broderick Park, 1170 Niagara St, Buffalo (on the Niagara River, end of West Ferry Street), +1 716-218-0303. Many years before the Peace Bridge was constructed to the south, fugitive slaves crossed the river from here to Canada.

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

  • 17 British Methodist Episcopal Church and Salem Chapel (1855), Geneva and North streets, St. Catharines. The area became known to escaped slaves as a place of "refuge and rest".
  • 18 Negro Burial Ground, Mississauga Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake (north of John Street), +1 905 468-3266. Cemetery on former site of Niagara Baptist Church (1830), a Calvinistic and predominantly African-Canadian congregation.

The Ohio Line[edit]

Multiple, parallel lines led north from slavery in Kentucky across Ohio to Lake Erie and freedom in Ontario. The stations listed here form a line through Ohio's major cities (Cincinnati-Columbus-Cleveland-Toledo) and around Lake Erie to Windsor-Detroit, a journey of approximately 800 miles. In practice, Underground Railroad passengers would head due north and cross Lake Erie at the first possible opportunity via any of multiple parallel routes.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Depart Lexington, Kentucky northbound 85 miles to cross the Ohio River and board this freedom train. Cincinnati stands on the north shore of the Ohio River, directly opposite Covington KY, and is one of many points at which thousands crossed the river in search of freedom.

  • 19 National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 50 East Freedom Way, Cincinnati (Riverfront), +1 513-333-7500. Tu-Su 11AM-5PM (Closed: Labor Day, September 7, October 15 at 14:00, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day). The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a museum of conscience; it offers lessons on the struggle for freedom in the past, in the present, and for the future. $12 Adults, $10 Seniors, $8 Children.

Thirty miles to the east, Williamsburg and Clermont County were home to multiple stations on the Underground Railroad. Fifty-five miles north is Springboro (Warren County), on the southern edge of Dayton .

Springboro Historical Society Museum
  • 20 Springboro Historical Society Museum, 110 S. Main Street, Springboro, +1 937 748-0916. Springboro's storied past as a vital stop on the Underground Railroad is detailed in the quaint museum, with information on the elaborate tunnel system and the twenty-seven local safe houses, many of which still stand today.

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

Continuing east 110 miles through Columbus, one reaches Zanesville.

  • 21 Prospect Place, 12150 Main St, Trinway, OH, +1 740-221-4175. A 29 room mansion built by abolitionist George Willison Adams in 1856, served as an Underground Railroad station until the 1860's.

A hundred ten miles to the northeast is Alliance.

The next town to the north is Kent, the home of Kent State University, which was a waypoint on the Underground Railroad back when the village was still named Franklin Mills. Thirty-six miles further north is the Lake Erie shoreline, east of Cleveland. From there, one can go east to Ashtabula or west to Lorain in search of a suitable crossing point.

  • 23 Hubbard House UGRR Museum, 1603 Walnut Blvd, Ashtabula, +1 440-964-8168. Mem.-Labor Day: F-Su 1PM-5PM; or by appointment. Closed Mon and holidays. Restored home of William and Catharine Hubbard, the only northern terminus of the Underground Railroad that can be toured.
  • 2 Lorain Underground Railroad Station, Black River Landing, 100 Black River Lane, Lorain. Reflective Garden and Monument commemorating the Underground Railroad which led slaves to freedom.

West of Lorain is Sandusky, which remains a seasonal ferry crossing point to the southernmost tip of Canada, Point Pelee.

  • 24 Maritime Museum of Sandusky, 125 Meigs Street, Sandusky OH, +1 419-624-0274. This museum interprets the maritime history of the area including boat building, recreational boating, passenger boats, shipwrecks, wetlands, commercial shipping, fishing, and the boats of Sandusky’s Underground Railroad through interactive exhibits and educational programs.
  • The MV Jiimaan, Jackson St. The largest passenger ferry along the Lake Erie route to Pelee Island leaves from the foot of Jackson Street, Sandusky to Leamington, Kingsville Govt. Dock and Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada.

One can cross the border directly here or continue westward through Toledo to Detroit.

  • 25 First Living Museum, 33 E. Forest at Woodward Ave, Detroit, +1 313-831-4080. Underground Railroad museum at the First Congregational Church of Detroit; a one-hour re-enactment Flight to Freedom Tour has visitors shackled with wrist bands at the beginning of an Escape as passengers on a simulated Underground Railroad where they are led to Freedom by a Conductor, hiding from bounty hunters, crossing the Ohio River to seek refuge in Levi Coffin's abolitionist safe house in Indiana before arriving to “Midnight”, code name for Detroit, and safe haven at the First Congregational Church of Detroit as the final stop before reaching Canada and Freedom. $12-15/person.
  • 26 Mariners' Church, 170 East Jefferson Ave, Detroit MI. An 1849 limestone church known primarily for serving Great Lakes sailors and memorialising crew lost at sea. In 1955, workers discovered a tunnel from the Underground Railroad era under the building when moving the church to make room for a new civic centre. The lyrics "In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed, In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral, The church bell chimed ’til it rang 29 times, For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald" in a 1976 Gordon Lightfoot tune reference this chapel.

If Detroit was "Midnight" on the Underground Railroad, Windsor (Ontario) was "Dawn". An underground railroad literally exists from Detroit to Windsor and Port Huron to Sarnia, but these rail tunnels now serve only freight. The last passengers (through Port Huron en route from Chicago to Toronto) crossed the Canadian border in 2004.

An underground road tunnel remains in operation to Windsor, complete with a municipal Tunnel Bus service (C$4/person, one way).

A safehouse is located thirty-five miles north of Detroit (on the US side) in Washington Township:

  • 27 Octagon House, 57500 Van Dyke, Washington Township MI, +1 586-781-0084. An icon of early history, capturing attention with its unusual symmetry and serving as a metaphor for a community that bridges yesterday and tomorrow.
African-Canadian Heritage Tour logo

A ferry runs to Canada from Marine City, Michigan; there are bridges in Port Huron and in Detroit. Across the river lay the Windsor-Quebec corridor, one of the most populated regions in Canada. A monument to the Underground Railroad stands in Windsor. Amherstburg, just south of Windsor, is also a terminus on the Underground Railroad.

  • 28 Sandwich First Baptist Church, 3652 Peter St, Windsor ON, +1 519-252-4917. A church established by Underground Railroad refugees as a terminus near an ideal river crossing point, equipped with a series of tunnels and trapdoors.
  • Emancipation Day Celebration, Windsor. First weekend in August, "The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth" commemorates The Emancipation Act of 1833, which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire.
  • 29 Amherstburg Freedom Museum (Formerly the North American Black Historical Museum Inc.), 277 King St, Amherstburg ON, +1 519-736-5433, toll-free: +1 800-713-6336, e-mail: . Tue-Fri 12-5pm, Sat-Sun 1-5pm. Museum, Cultural Centre, Taylor Log Cabin and Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church. $7.50/Adult $6.50/Seniors & Students. Amherstburg Freedom Museum on Wikipedia
  • 30 John Freeman Walls Historic Site, 859 Puce Rd, Lakeshore ON, +1 519-727-6555, fax: +1 519-727-5793. Underground Railroad Museum and 20-acre historical site in Puce, now Lakeshore, Ontario, in Essex County about 25 miles east of Windsor. John Freeman Walls Historic Site on Wikipedia

In Chatham-Kent (on the signed African-Canadian Heritage Tour route), American abolitionist John Brown's possessions are displayed in the Chatham-Kent Museum.

  • 31 Chatham-Kent Museum, 75 William St N, Chatham ON, +1 519-360-1998.
  • 32 Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, 177 King St E, Chatham, +1 519-352-3565.
  • 33 Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, 29251 Uncle Toms Rd, Dresden ON, +1 519-683-2978. Open air museum and African American history centre that includes the home of Josiah Henson, a former slave, author, abolitionist, and minister, who was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's title character in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Part of the original 200 acres purchased in 1841 to establish the Dawn Settlement, a community for escaped slaves. Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site on Wikipedia
  • 34 Buxton National Historic Site & Museum, 21975 A.D. Shadd Road, North Buxton ON, +1 519-352-4799, fax: +1 519-352-8561. Museum and 1861 schoolhouse, 1854 log cabin and barn. A tribute to the 1849 Elgin Settlement, a haven for fugitive slaves and free blacks and a final stop on the Underground Railroad. An annual Buxton Homecoming cultural festival in September recalls the roots laid by early black settlers in the area.

In Toronto, the Toronto Transit Commission (+1 416-393-INFO) has run an annual midnight Underground Freedom Train Ride annually to commemorate Emancipation Day; the train leaves Union subway station in time to reach the northwest end of the line at midnight on August 1.

Into the Maritime provinces[edit]

Another route, less used but still significant, led from New England into Canada's Atlantic Provinces, mainly from Boston to Halifax. Halifax still has a substantial mostly-black district, largely populated by descendants of underground railroad passengers.

Stay safe[edit]

Sale of negroes 1860.jpg


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 local northern population. 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 US 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 illegally in violation of Canadian law) until slavery was ended via the American Civil War of the 1860's.

While many Underground Railroad passengers did return to the northern US after the abolition of slavery, racial struggles would continue for at least another century – including violent race rioting in Detroit in both 1943 and 1967. A "Negro Motorist Green Book" listing businesses safe for African-American travellers would remain in print in New York City from 1936 to 1966; its coverage, while national, was uneven.


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 nor segregation.

Go next[edit]

See also[edit]

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