Underground Railroad

This article is an itinerary.
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.


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.

Underground Railroad Monument in Windsor

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.

Get in

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

Freedom train to Canada

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:

From Cambridge MD to Philadelphia, her path (as described to Wilbur Siebert in 1897) appears to be:

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.

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

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

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.

Freedom Crossing Monument, Lewiston

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

Continuing east 110 miles through Columbus, one reaches Zanesville.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

Stay safe


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.

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See also

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Monday, December 21, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.