What do you think about when you hear the word “railroad”? Engines? A line of boxcars? The conductor or the caboose? Tracks stretching off into the distance?

What about an underground railroad? Some of you may think of the subway.

Would you believe the most famous and important Underground Railroad of all time, though, was not made up of engines, boxcars or track? It might surprise you to learn it was made of… people.

From the earliest moments of American history, boats full of African families were brought to this “land of freedom,” not as free men and women, but as slaves to work the land. As soon as they arrived, some began to seek freedom, but escape from the bonds of slavery would not be easy.

People who opposed slavery (called “abolitionists”), along with a large number of other brave men and women, began to create an informal system of secret routes, meeting points and safe houses to help slaves escape to states that prohibited slavery or even further north to Canada. This informal network of secret routes and safe houses became known as the Underground Railroad.

Since it was not really a “railroad” and it certainly wasn’t “underground,” how did this name come about? The movement was “underground” in the sense that escaping slaves and those who helped them had to stay out of sight and conceal their actions because they were technically breaking the law.

The “railroad” part of the name came from the words and labels used to describe those involved and their journeys. Runaway slaves would rest, sleep and eat at places given the code names “stations” and “depots.” “Conductors” would hide runaway slaves in their homes and teach them secret codes to help them find the next “station” along the route.

The Underground Railroad consisted of a vast network of people and was not run by any single organization or person. Indeed, most of those involved only knew about their particular part of the operation and not the overall picture.

The Underground Railroad effectively moved many slaves to freedom each year. Its use peaked between 1850 and 1860. Some estimate that up to 100,000 slaves had escaped via the Underground Railroad by 1850.

For all those involved, running away to freedom was a dangerous and difficult ordeal. Slaves had to first escape from their slaveholders.

Sometimes a “conductor” would pose as a slave, enter a plantation and then guide runaways northward. Most of the time, though, slaves had only themselves to rely on to plan and execute their escape.

Runaways would move at night, traveling 10 to 20 miles to the next “station.” During the day, they would rest and eat, hiding out in all sorts of places.

The journey was long and stressful. The length of the route to freedom varied but often exceeded 500 to 600 miles.

Runaway slaves who were strong — and lucky — might make it to freedom in as little as two months. For the weak and unlucky, the journey could last more than a year.

Harriet Tubman was one of the most famous “conductors” along the Underground Railroad. Born into slavery in Maryland, she planned her escape when she learned she was going to be separated from her family and sold.

With the help of others, she made her way to Philadelphia, starting out in the back of a wagon covered with a sack. She later described freedom as “heaven.”

In Philadelphia, Harriet worked hard to save money to rescue her family. She eventually helped more than 300 slaves reach freedom.

Harriet became known as “Moses” because she returned 19 times to the South (or “Egypt”) to help runaway slaves use the Underground Railroad to gain freedom. She became known for using music, Bible verses and folklore to alert escaped slaves to danger and give them directions to safe houses.


27 Join the Discussion

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    • We agree, JoJo’s Nonni! There were many brave people who risked so much to help keep the Underground Railroad running. We could all learn something from their courage and from the courage of the slaves who were risking their very lives for freedom. Thank you for visiting Wonderopolis today and leaving us this awesome comment! :-)

  1. HOLLY NEAR is an amazing Folk singer, who sings songs about The Underground Railroad, as well as many other political issues. :)

    • Thank you for sharing about Holly Near, JoJo’s Nonni! We didn’t know about her before, and now we have learned that she is a singer, songwriter, and social change activist! Learning is so much fun, isn’t it? :-)

  2. Hey I have a history assignment to work on what is BESTTT website to use to find out what was it like to travel the underground railroad????

    • We’re so glad to hear that you enjoy your time at Wonderopolis, Emilie! :-) We hope your history assignment is WONDERful! :)

    • That sounds like an awesome field trip, Shyaunna! We’re glad you shared your connection to our historic Wonder– we Wonder if you learned anything new from the Wonder? Or perhaps you have something you’d like to share from the field trip? :)

  3. Hi did the people doing the video help the slaves? I would help them I loved the video the people who helped were so brave.

    Love: Emma

    • How cool! Our Wonder Friends Shyaunna, Erik, Emma and Libby have been WONDERing on their own about the Underground Railroad! Nice work, Wonder Friends!

      It sounds like you have made lots of connections to this Wonder– from field trips to lessons to everything in between! We are happy to know you’re learning as you Wonder! Thanks for visiting us today and sharing your awesome comments! :)

  4. All my friends are wondering that you guys should make a wonder about “Who Made The Song The Drinking Gourd!” Because my class and all the other 3rd grade classes know the song and the book! And you should make a wonder about: HOW FAST DOES TIME TRAVEL? From: Shyaunna, Erik, Emma and Libby {Elizabeth}

    • Thank you so much for sharing a Wonder of your own, Shyaunna, Erik, Emma and Libby (Elizabeth)! We are so glad you have told us all about a book you’ve been reading– it sounds quite popular if all third graders know about it! NICE! Thanks for visiting us and sharing your awesome suggestions, Wonder Friends! :)

    • Hi Jordan and Ashton! We have not been to the Underground Railroad, but it looks like a WONDERful place! Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

    • Hi Jordan and Ashton! Thanks for WONDERing with us! The Underground Railroad is a topic that is still being uncovered and learned! We keep finding new details and stories! It’s WONDERful that knowledge continues to grow in that way! :)

  5. How long has Wonderopils been around ? It was fun learning about the North and South with the extra link on this website. I did not know that they were in a Civil war over slavery.

    • Hi, Emilee! We think that is why it is important to learn about what happened in the past. So, that we don’t repeat our mistakes. We’re glad that you like the website and that you are WONDERing with us today! :-)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What was the Underground Railroad?
  • Who was Harriet Tubman?
  • How many slaves reached freedom through the Underground Railroad?

Wonder Gallery

historical slave cabins_shutterstock_32258758Vimeo Video

Try It Out

Can you imagine what life was like for slaves so many years ago? What would it have been like to escape a life of bondage to find freedom along the Underground Railroad?

Use this fascinating interactive resource to follow a slave during his journey on the Underground Railroad. Learn what plantation life was like, how difficult escape could be, what traveling on the Underground Railroad was like and, finally, how it felt to reach freedom.


Still Wondering

Today’s Wonder of the Day briefly introduces you to the history of the Underground Railroad, but there’s so much more to explore! If you’re interested in learning more about other stories of freedom, check out some of the books recommended on EDSITEment’s The Many Faces of Freedom resource page.

If you want to learn more about the widespread geography of the Underground Railroad, take a look at the historical sites listed on the National Park Service’s Aboard the Underground Railroad: List of Sites.


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