The story of the Underground Railroad is filled with daring escapes, secret passwords, disguises and brave heroes. The name makes it sound as if it was a modern subway, but it wasn't a railroad at all, and "Underground" meant "secret." It was a network of trails that runaway slaves could follow from the plantations in the American South to freedom in Canada.

Along these trails, the Underground Railroad offered "stations," or safe houses, where the fugitives could hide from slave hunters. Most: important, the Railroad was staffed by "conductors" — women and men, Black and White. These guides defied the law to help fugitives from southern states escape to the 14 free northern states or to Canada.

The name "Underground Railroad" was inspired by the first steam-powered trains in North America. Brand new in the 1830s, trains were a quick and easy way to travel. They were just coming into use when Britain abolished slavery in Canada and all other colonies in 1834.

Runaway slaves couldn't board real trains for fear of getting, caught,, but they rushed to board the Underground Railroad from that time on.

When Did It Operate?

The Underground Railroad dates from about 1831, the year of Nat Turner's revolt against slavery, to 1865, when slavery was abolished in the United States. During that time, slavery was illegal in the northern states, but Black people escaping from southern states often didn't dare to stop there. If they did, they could be caught by slave hunters, who were allowed to recapture slaves and send them back to their masters.

Even worse, in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. It declared that anyone in a free northern state who knew about runaway slaves had to turn them in. As a result, the Underground Railroad was most active in the 1850s.

Code Words

The people helping runaway slaves had to communicate by mail, and letters could always be opened. So these code words weren't just for fun — they helped confuse slave hunters.

Promised land or Canaan: Canada (in the Bible, Canaan was the promised land to which Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt)

Station: safe house on the route north

Freight or cargo: runaway slaves

Station masters or agents: people who helped hide runaways and direct them to the next station

Conductors: people who acted as guides and travelled with the runaways

Stockholders: people who donated money, food or transportation to runaways

Josiah Henson's Escape

When Josiah Henson and his family escaped in 1830 from the Kentucky plantation where they lived, they took only a small parcel of food and 25 cents. Henson carried the youngest children in a sack on his back. By day, the family hid from the slave catchers. By night, they picked their way through thick woods and swamps. Guided by the North Star, they pressed on for six weeks.

Finally, with the help of the Underground Railroad, the family reached safety and freedom in Upper Canada. When Henson crossed the bridge over the Niagara River, he fell on his knees and kissed the ground.

Passwords and Parcels

The conductors of the Underground Railroad communicated by means of secret passwords and signals — bird calls, special knocks and coded letters like this one:

"Dear Grinnell: Uncle Tom says if the roads are not too bad, you can look for those fleeces of wool by tomorrow. Send them on to test the market and price, no back charges ..."

Those "fleeces of wool" were really runaway slaves hiding in a farm cart. Many other tricks were used to transport fugitives. Some enslaved Black people hid in false-bottomed boxes. Others were shipped as freight on real trains. One slave rode across the border stretched out in a coffin — knotholes in the wood gave him just enough air to breathe.


Runaway slaves often wore disguises — makeup, wigs and moustaches all helped. Women would dress as men or men as women. Sometimes the runaways dressed up to look like prosperous free Black people living in a northern state — anything to confuse the slave hunters.

The Underground Railroad brought the biggest single group of Black American immigrants to Canada — somewhere between 20, 000 and 100, 000 people. Nobody knows the exact number because of the secrecy that had to surround the enslaved people's escape.

The Quakers

The Quakers (also called the Society of Friends) were a Christian group in New England who opposed slavery. From the late 1700s on, the Quakers opened their homes to runaway slaves.

As the Underground Railroad grew, the Quakers became station masters and conductors. Levi Coffin was a Quaker and abolitionist who lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. He hid at least 100 enslaved Black people in his home every year and became the "president" of the Underground Railroad. In Canada, Quakers were always eager to help their Black neighbours.


When they were on the plantations, the enslaved Black people had comforted themselves by composing and singing new songs. These "spirituals" - based on Bible stories — expressed their deep longing for their lost homes and their hopes that they would one day be free.

During the Underground Railroad, the words of the songs took on new meanings. One spiritual encouraged reluctant slaves to escape: "Get on board, little children, there's room for many a more."

Another spiritual told runaways how to find their way to Canada: "Follow the Drinking Gourd." The enslaved people knew these were code words for the Big Dipper constellation. Why was that important? Because the two stars at the front of the Big Dipper's bowl point to the North Star, which guides travellers north.

Routes to Freedom

There were several routes that runaway slaves could follow, but they were all dangerous. Men with savage dogs hunted down runaways for rewards. Many runaway slaves were recaptured, cruelly beaten and returned to their plantations.

The escape routes led as directly as possible from slave-holding southern states, such as Tennessee and Mississippi, to free northern states or Canada. Large numbers of Black people crossed the Great Lakes into Upper Canada at towns such as Owen Sound, St. Catharines, Toronto and Windsor. Other routes led to the Maritime provinces.


The most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. She became known as her people's "Moses,"  after the biblical leader who led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt.

Born enslaved in 1820, Tubman was forced to do heavy work as a child. A head injury caused by an angry boss gave her narcolepsy for the rest of her life. (Narcolepsy causes a person to fall suddenly into a deep sleep.) Tubman escaped from the plantation when she was about 30, using skills her father taught her — how to move silently through the forest, how to navigate by the stars, and how to find plants to eat. But she couldn't bear to leave her family in slavery, so she returned and led them all to safety.

More than 300 enslaved Black people were guided to freedom by this dedicated conductor. Dressed as a man, Tubman would approach the slave quarters of a plantation and make her well-known owl-hoot signal. When the slaves heard it, they gathered their belongings and followed her.

Tubman was a strict leader. For the safety of the group, nobody was ever allowed to turn back. As a result, she could say proudly "I never ran my train off its tracks, and I never lost a passenger."

Until 1858, Harriet Tubman's station on the Underground Railroad was in St. Catharines, Canada West. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, she returned to the United States to work as a nurse, guide and spy for the northern side. Tubman became the only woman to successfully carry out a rescue during a war — she freed 750 people.

Later, Tubman lived with her parents in Auburn, New York. She died in 1913, and her home is now a museum that honours her courage and extraordinary ability.

Alexander Milton Ross, Conductor

Alexander Milton Ross was a White doctor from Belleville, Canada West, whose hobby was studying birds. Like many other people, he read Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe that aroused much sympathy for the victims of slavery. Ross decided to do all he could to help enslaved Black people escape.

Using his interest in birds as a cover, Ross made many trips to southern plantations. There, he would befriend the owners while secretly meeting the slaves. Ross gave the slaves clear maps of escape routes or guided them to Canada himself.

The End of the Underground Railroad

In 1865, after the North won the Civil War, slavery came to an end in the United States. Many Black people who had come to Canada on the Underground Railroad returned home. Others remained and became Canadians. But for some years, they lived in fear of being kidnapped by slave hunters who ignored the law.