During the 19th century, slaves of African descent in the United States fled from the southern states to the northern free states, or even as far as Canada and Mexico, to escape their persecutors. Abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause set up a network of secret routes and safe houses to aid these fleeing slaves. This overall network became known as the Underground Railroad. Many of these locations have been preserved as national historic sites as a testament to this turbulent time in history. Now tourists from all over the world trace the thousands of routes along the Underground Railroad and visit the safe houses that once served as a stop for thousands of scared, yet hopeful, freedom seekers.
1. Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Cincinnati, Ohio
By Photo by Greg Hume (Greg5030), via Wikimedia Commons
While Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her famed Uncle Tom's Cabin from her home in Maine, this Cincinnati house that she visited bears her name with pride.
Stowe once stayed in this house that belonged to abolitionist John Rankin where she interviewed slaves that had used the Underground Railroad, including stops at that very safe house. The characters from her novel mirrored the stories of free slaves such as Josiah Henson and his family, who escaped from Kentucky to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Today this house is considered a landmark. Visitors can tour the interior that once housed weary slaves, and the cellar in which they would hide from bounty hunters.
2. Levi Coffin House, Fountain City, Indiana
By Indiana Department of Natural Resources, via Wikimedia Commons
The Levi Coffin House was considered the Grand Station of the Underground Railroad. The home was owned by Quakers Levi and Catherine Coffin who were originally from North Carolina. The couple became legendary among conductors of the Railroad as they helped over 2,000 slaves to freedom from their home – with not a single one getting caught.
As Indiana bordered slave states, those who crossed over the three main entry points to the north often ended up in the Levi Coffin House where they would then be taken further north to the Canadian border.
After a lengthy stint as a wholesale warehouse, the Levi Coffin House was purchased by the State of Indiana in 1967, when it was registered as a National Historic Landmark.
3. Appoquinimink Friends Meeting House, Odessa, Delaware
By Historic American Buildings Survey W. S. Stewart, Photographer, via Wikimedia Commons
Although Delaware sided with the Union in the Civil War, it remained a slave state for quite some time. However, in Odessa there was a strong Quaker community that was strictly opposed to slavery. In this meeting house, abolitionist John Hunn and John Alston rallied support for the movement.
Both Hunn and Alston were also two stationmasters along the Underground Railroad in Delaware. The pair helped the would-be famous conductor Samuel Burris escape from Delaware into Pennsylvania to freedom.
It was in this meeting house that the local Underground Railroad supporters would meet and discuss strategy, as many slave owners and bounty hunters often came to Odessa looking for their lost ‘property’.
After Alston's death in 1874, the house was passed down through several families before being bought by Wilmington Monthly Meeting in 1970, which restored it to its former glory. This average-looking house now serves as an important monument to local Quakers.
4. Grimes Homestead, Mountain Lake, New Jersey
The Grimes family was a Quaker family that was active in the antislavery movement in New Jersey. Dr John Grimes, the most ardent antislavery activist in the family, was born and lived in this house until he moved to nearby Passiac County to practice medicine.
During his time there, New Jersey was fiercely split on the issue of slavery. Many residents felt sympathetic to the south, if only because they had economic ties to slave plantations.
Grimes often got into heated shouting matches with slavery supporters, which earned him praise from half the town and scorn from the other. As a young man he was arrested for housing a runaway slave in the cellar of the Grimes house. He would be arrested again for the same crime in his house in Passiac County.
The Grimes House has teetered in between being open for tourists and remaining a private residence over the years. Never named a National Landmark, some owners have opened it up, while others have kept it private.
5. Liberty Farm, Worcester, Massachusetts
By Magicpiano, via Wikimedia Commons
Liberty Farm belonged to outspoken abolitionist couple Stephen Foster and his wife Abbey Foster. Both were Quakers and motivated by a strong moral commitment.
Though the pair were both abolitionist, Abbey Foster was excessively active and an early suffragist. When she voiced her opinions on equal rights, crowds were taken aback by a woman speaking with such passion and conviction.
Unbeknown to the masses, Liberty Farm was used as a secret stop along the Underground Railroad. The family kept this secret as the more famous houses on the Underground Railroad were targets for raids and vandalism.
The farm where this important figure in equal rights lived was surrendered to the state in order to pay taxes by the family, but a friend purchased it and returned it back to the Fosters. Now the house is a National Landmark, but due to its delicate condition, the upper levels are not open to the public. However the cellar where many slaves left their mark is a popular attraction.
6. Rokeby, Ferrisburg, Vermont
By Mfwills, via Wikimedia Commons
Rokeby was home to four generations of the Robinson family. It was also a popular stop along the Underground Railroad. The family preserved many of the letters, account books and diaries kept by the family during that era, including a list of every free slave who passed through their doors.
The Robinsons still own Rokeby, but today it is a museum. Visitors are welcome to turn through the aged pages of the account books and diaries kept by the family. It gives a unique and hands-on look at that era in history.
7. Theodore Roosevelt Island, Virginia
creativecommons.org/William F Yurasko
Though it is now known as Theodore Roosevelt Island due the former president's massive statue, Mason Island used to be a popular spot for freed slaves.
Being right across the lines of freedom, freed slaves flocked into the District of Columbia until the cities swelled. However, as room in the cities ran out, many found it safe on Mason Island, where the slave hunters did not often bother to look.
Many moved further north to Canada, but Mason Island was developed into a hidden refugee camp. After the Civil War, many of the refugees moved on from the island to more permanent homes.
Today, much of where they lived lies in ruins, reclaimed by nature. However, tourists often stumble upon relics from a lost age while hiking on this island.
8. John Brown Farm & Gravesite, Lake Placid, New York
This shabby-looking cabin served as home to the legendary John Brown leading up to his infamous raid on Harper's Ferry, where he was killed. He requested to be returned here and buried.
It soon became a pilgrimage site for abolitionists and African Americans who came to pay their respects to the fallen hero. Many freed slaves decided to stay in the area, but they, as well as John Brown's own family, found the barren land difficult to farm and many soon moved on.
While not technically a part of the Underground Railroad, many recognize it as such due to Brown's dedication to freedom. His tiny wooden house has endured through the ages and the John Brown Association has erected a statue in his honour near his grave to commemorate his sacrifice.
9. The Wayside, Concord, Massachusetts
creativecommons.org/Julie Jordan Scott
The Wayside is better known as the house of two legendary writers – Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Hawthorne was famous for the Scarlet Letter and Alcott for Little Women. Many of the scenes that were depicted by Alcott's Little Women were inspired by her childhood at The Wayside, such as the family sheltering fugitive slaves in 1847. Now The Wayside barn serves as a visitor centre to the house. This important piece of literary history is now a National Landmark.
10. Plymouth Church Of The Pilgrims, Brooklyn, New York
Plymouth Church was home to the minister and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, who was brother to the famous writer, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Through his writings and preaching of his strong abolitionist views, Beecher inspired the local community. His pamphlets became widely circulated and anti-slavery sympathizers began flocking to his church to hear him speak. Through his preaching of disobedience of Fugitive Slavery Laws, he inspired the local community to aid fleeing slaves in any way possible.
Today, Plymouth Church is still very much a church.
11. Moncure Conway House, Falmouth, Virginia
This house belonged to the author, clergyman, and abolitionist Moncure Daniel Conway. It also served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
Slaves who travelled along one of the more dangerous routes of the Underground Railroad found a safe haven here. Conway helped 30 slaves escape their masters and continue on to freedom in Ohio. He once wrote that he felt he himself had no freedom while others were still enslaved.
Today the house stands in pristine condition as an example of federal brick style architecture. Unfortunately it is only opened for special events, like fundraisers and human rights rallies.
12. Starr Clark Tin Shop, Mexico, New York
The Starr Clark Tin Shop was owned by Starr Clark and his wife Harriet, both of whom were active abolitionists.
Clark helped organize the anti-slavery movement in the New York city of Mexico, and through his efforts he made it one of the most active stops on the Underground Railway.
The Clarks provided housing to freedom seekers either in their house or their tin shop. The Tin Shop has been kept in memory of this dedicated couple. It looks much like a simple little modern house, but inside it is filled with Starr Clark's tin works, as well as information about the town's history during the Underground Railway era.