- This article is an itinerary.
- This article describes historical escape routes for American slaves. See Urban rail for underground rail systems.
Upper Canada banned import of new slaves on July 9, 1793 and all slavery throughout the British Empire ended with the Slavery Abolition Act of August 1, 1834. The United States, however, remained bitterly divided.
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 whose use of the Fugitive Slave Law (an 1850 federal act) to abduct escaped slaves in free states and transport them back to slavery alienated the abolitionist North. 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.
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 Moses and the 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. Americans seeking to visit Canada were formerly passport-exempt, but this exemption was revoked in the early 21st century. The same considerations apply as for all foreign travel.
The most common points of entry to the Underground Railroad network were border states which represented the division between free and slave; Maryland, Virginia, 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
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:
- Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park. 17-acre State Park adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County near the town of Church Creek on Route 335.
- Harriet Tubman Organization museum, 424 Race St, Cambridge, ☎ +1 410-228-0401. Guided tours by appointment.
- Cambridge (Maryland)
- East New Market
- Poplar Neck, Caroline County, Maryland
- Sandtown, Delaware
- Willow Grove
- New Castle
- Wilmington (Delaware)
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The 120 mile (200km) portion from Cambridge to Wilmington would have to be made by road (on foot or in a vehicle). An additional 30 miles (50 km) is required to cross from Wilmington to Philadelphia.
- 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.
A signed Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway currently crosses Maryland and Delaware, passing various Underground Railroad sites before exiting Centerville DE to Pennsylvania.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Harriet Tubman Home,, 180 South Street, ☎ +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.
- Fort Hill Cemetery,, 19 Fort Street, ☎ +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.
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 Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Interpretive Center is planned as part of a rail station to be built at the former US custom house (1863-1962) at 2245 Whirlpool St, Niagara Falls NY. Intended as a gateway to the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery history of the area, it likely will not be ready until 2016.
- 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.
- First Presbyterian Church and Village cemetery (1835), Cayuga & South 5th Sts, Lewiston. This church played a prominent role in the Underground Railroad; a sculpture in front of the church commemorates the site.
- 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".
- 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.
- Broderick Park, end of West Ferry Street (on the Niagara River). 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.
- 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".
- 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
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.
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.
- National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 50 East Freedom Way (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, 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.
- Ye Old Trail Tavern, Yellow Springs. Cold beer, bar food; original 1844 log cabin was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.
- Prospect Place, 12140-12150 Main St, Zanesville. A station on the Underground Railroad to help runaway slaves in the 1860's.
A hundred ten miles to the northeast is Alliance.
- Haines House Underground Railroad Museum, 186 West Market St, Alliance, ☎ +1 330-829-4668. Open the first weekend of the month: Sa 10AM-12PM; Su 1PM-3PM. The Haines House was a former stop on the Underground Railroad.
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.
- Hubbard House UGRR Museum, Walnut Blvd. and Lake Ave, Ashtabula Harbor, ☎ +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.
- Lorain Underground Railroad Station, 100 Black River Landing. Reflective Garden and Monument commemorating the Underground Railroad which led slaves to freedom.
- Maritime Museum of Sandusky, 125 Meigs Street. 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 St., Sandusky. To Leamington, Canada, Kingsville Govt. Dock, Ontario, Canada and Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada.
One can cross the border directly here or continue westward through Toledo to Detroit.
- First Living Museum, 33 E. Forest at Woodward Avenue, ☎ +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.
- Mariners' Church, 170 East Jefferson Ave, Detroit. 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.
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.
- Octagon House, 57500 Van Dyke, Washington Township, ☎ +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.
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.
- Sandwich First Baptist Church, Windsor. A church established by Underground Railroad refugees as a terminal on the railroad situated near an ideal river crossing point and 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.
- North American Black Historical Museum, 277 King St, Amherstburg N9V 2C7, ☎ +1 519-736-5433, toll-free: +1 800-713-6336. Museum, Cultural Centre, Taylor Log Cabin and Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church.
- John Freeman Walls Historic Site, 859 East Puce Rd, Essex, ☎ +1 519-727-6555, fax: +1 519-727-5793. Underground Railroad Museum and 20-acre historical site in Puce, now Lakeshore, Ontario, about 25 miles east of Windsor.
In Chatham-Kent (on the signed African-Canadian Heritage Tour route), American abolitionist John Brown's possessions are displayed in the Chatham-Kent Museum.
- Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, Dresden, Ontario. 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.
- Buxton National Historic Site & Museum, 21975 A.D. Shadd Road, North Buxton N0P 1Y0, ☎ +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.
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.