How the Underground Railroad took slaves to safety

A rail network... without any trains

Here’s another tale about a mythical train, but unlike the Orient-Express, the Shinkansen and Trans-Siberian, this isn’t really a train, but rather something known as the Underground Railroad. Not all that well known in Europe, this was a network of clandestine routes and safe houses that allowed American slaves to flee the southern states. It allowed them to reach the North, where they could live freely, or Canada where slavery had been abolished by the British government as part of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. There was no railway connection, but the fact the language of trains was used to describe it means it’s worth diving a little deeper.

It was the start of the nineteenth century and, at the time, the dozen or so states that made up the young American nation was split on the issue on slavery. In the South, which was where most of the plantations were, the authorities were set on maintaining this inhuman practice, which they felt was the proper order of things and good for business. In the North, the economy was more urban and the mentality was more progressive, so things were different. The abolitionist movement gained traction among intellectual circles, and even while the population remained generally quite hostile to Black people, on the whole it was not pro-slavery. So Black men and women could live there freely, find a job and blend in within the anonymity of the great metropolises.

The plantation slaves didn’t really have a choice. If they wanted to experience freedom, they had to flee for the North. The first people to do this did it alone, without any means, having only the sun and stars to help them navigate. So much so, one phrase that circulated among the slaves at the time was ‘follow the bottle’, from a popular song at the time and which referred to Ursa Major. But slowly, bit by bit, faced with the huge difficulty of escaping the South, a secret network emerged: the Underground Railroad.

While the exact origin of the name is still subject to debate, its references to the railways are legion. This fluid and changing movement was created by former slaves, free-born Black people and abolitionist white people, including Quakers, to help people reach the northern states. The houses occupied by members of the network were thus called ‘stations’ and those who ran them were known as ‘station masters’. The safe houses for Black people were known as ‘stations’ or ‘depots’. And the men, women who fled the plantations were considered ‘passengers’, or in certain cases, ‘cargo’. A little less frequently, religious terminology replaced that of the railways, with ‘station masters’ becoming ‘pastors’ and Canada known as ‘the Promised Land’.

The code names allowed members of the networks and those using the safe houses to hide from their ‘owners’ and bounty hunters (who were often accompanied by dogs). A law, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, in fact allowed the latter to pursue ‘their possessions’ anywhere within the United States. That’s why the Underground Railroad was for the most part located in the north of the country, rather than in the south. Overall, it’s estimated that from 1830 to 1860, between 30,000 and 100,000 people were saved thanks to those metaphorical train tracks and the people who built them. An impressive figure, but that’s dwarfed by the fact that the number of slaves across the USA rose from 800,000 to four million between 1800 and 1860.

Though you might not think it, the railroad wasn’t a rigid and hierarchical organisation. Rather, it consisted of loads of microcells joined to one another by their shared determination to fight back against slavery. What’s remo, in order to protest the entirety of the network, the ‘station masters’ would only know one or two of their counterparts in the South and one or two in the North. Thus, if one of them were to be tracked down or interrogated, they wouldn’t compromise the railroad, just one section of it.

Always thinking about safety first, the members of the network would mark out their ‘stations’ with signs that were impossible for the uninitiated to recognise. In some areas, chimney bricks were painted in white, in others a lantern would be lit at only certain times. It’s even said that there was a code system that relied on the position of coloured blankets in front of houses, though this is the subject of debate among historians. This creativity extended to the safe houses, where you would find stagecoaches with false bottoms, fake walls, sliding wardrobes and hidden traps.

The networks’ activities intensified when the southern states managed to bring in a new law, also called the Fugitive Slave Act, which passed through Congress in 1850. This law, which covered all of the country, including the North, set out to help ‘owners’ capture their fleeing slaves, causing a great outcry in abolitionist and progressive circles. It was also one of the factors that led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the start of the American Civil War. Paradoxically, it was the US president who shut down part of the clandestine network by abolishing slavery in 1865.

Since Black people could no longer be pursued in the northern territories, the Railroad had no real reason to exist. So it disappeared silently. The names of some of the heroes behind it, like Harriet Tubman, William Still and Levi Coffin, would later resurface thanks to the work of historians and soldiers. Just like the Underground Railroad itself, no doubt one of the most important ‘railway networks’ ever conceived, even if no train ever ran along its tracks.

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