Exploring the Underground Railroad

Exploring the Underground Railroad

by Julie Denney

The Railroad that did not Run on Tracks

The Underground Railroad played a pivotal role in American history providing a route to freedom for many enslaved Africans.  Not actually a railroad it was a series of safe houses, and points of guidance and assistance for those making the journey.  Many actual railroad terms were used to preserve secrecy; those taking the journey became known as ‘passengers’ or ‘cargo’, while those providing assistance were ‘conductors’, and the much needed safe houses were ‘stations’.  Whatever terms were used this was a perilous journey to take.

The route to freedom first came into being in the 1780s, with the destination for those taking it being the free states or Canada.  It did not start becoming known as the Underground Railroad until the 1830s. The ‘conductors’ were men and women of mixed ethnic backgrounds who believed in the abolition of slavery; many of them were Quakers or Methodists.

The Conductors of the Underground Railroad

One of the most famous Underground Railroad  ‘conductors’ was Harriet Tubman who helped more than three hundred people escape over a period of ten years.  Harriet had travelled the Underground Railroad herself.  At the age of twenty-eight, after hearing rumors of her sale, she escaped from the plantation in Maryland where she was born and found freedom in Philadelphia.  Despite the fact that there was a bounty on her head she still chose to return to the South, to help with further escapes, on many occasions.

Cast members Incredible Journey to Midnight: Detroit Underground Railroad Lantern Tour (L-R) Charles Little, NaKeesha Hayes, Jim Barfuss.
Cast members Incredible Journey to Midnight: Detroit Underground Railroad Lantern Tour (L-R) Charles Little, NaKeesha Hayes, Jim Barfuss.

In Detroit, an important ‘conductor’ was a man by the name of Seymour Finney.  He owned a hotel called Seymour Finney’s    Temperance House in downtown Detroit.  While Kentucky slave catchers dined at his inn, freedom seekers found refuge at  the hotel’s livery stable.   Another well-known name on the Detroit section of the railroad was George DeBaptiste. He was a well-respected business leader and entrepreneur who own also owned a steam ship called the T. Whitney.  On this craft he transported slaves to Canada via the Detroit River.  He was also the founder of a secret organization called African-American Mysteries or Order of the Men of Oppression, this organization worked alongside the Underground Railroad in Detroit.

Check out our Detroit Underground Railroad Lantern Tour 

Stations on the Journey to Freedom

On the Underground Railroad places were just as central as the people and many also had code names.  Detroit was the place from where most ‘passengers’ left the United States.  This was particularly pivotal after the introduction of The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which meant that any slave who arrived in a free state in the North could be captured and sent back to their master. Canada, as a country prohibited slavery, so freedom lay across the Detroit River.  This waterway was given the biblical codename Jordan while Detroit itself was known as ‘Midnight’.  The journey’s end became known by names such as ‘Dawn’, allowing people to talk about ‘taking the railroad from Midnight to Dawn’ without being too specific.

Many of the buildings which played a pivotal role in Detroit at the time of the Underground Railroad can still be visited today.   The First Congregational Church of Detroit provided food and shelter for ‘passengers’ on the Underground Railroad.  The original church was located on Wayne (Washington Boulevard) near the Detroit River. Today’s multicultural church, built in Romanesque and Byzantine styles, stands on Woodward one mile from downtown Detroit and offers a popular  Underground Railroad Experience which recreates the harsh journey freedom seekers would endured from a plantation deep in the South to Detroit.

Similarly the Second Baptist Church of Detroit was a leading ‘station’ on the Underground Railroad and is still available to visit in the downtown area of the city.  Groups can arrange tours of the church and see the area where freedom seekers hid while awaiting passage to Canada.

The Detroit of today is a bustling metropolis which offers many historic and modern attractions to visitors.  There are a multitude of things to think about should you be planning to visit the city, but probably the most important is money.  With the exception of personal items such as a passport, you can purchase anything you forget to pack as long as you have the finances to do so.  Should you be outside of the United States, looking at the options for obtaining currency before you travel, and taking action to secure some, means that you are never without money from the moment you set foot in the country.  So if you want to take a trip and follow in the footsteps of the Underground Railroad ‘passengers’ make sure you prepare for your journey. Although your travels will be far less hazardous than those escaping to freedom it is always helpful to look at all advice available.

Following in the Footsteps of Freedom

Even today travelling can provide obstacles but it is hard to imagine the fear and uncertainty involved with travelling on the Underground Railroad.  It is hard to determine some of the facts about this remarkable endeavor due to the necessarily secretive nature of its operation.  However, it is thought that it may have helped as many as thirty thousand slaves to freedom.  The traffic on the Underground Railroad was at its peak between 1840 and 1860, particularly after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. You can never experience the true terror of the journey but you can take a tour of the Underground Railroad in Detroit today and try to get a sense of what it must have been like.

Julie Denney is a freelance writer specializing in a variety of topics including travel, business, and history. 

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