The Railroad That Wasn’t

Imagine, if you can, a railroad that had most of the things that railroads have . . .

  • passengers or freight (packages),
  • stations (where trains stop so people can get on and off),
  • conductors (people who check tickets and help passengers),
  • routes (a way to get from one place to another)

. . . but no trains and no tracks (the metal strips that trains ride on).

February is Black, or African-American, History Month – when we celebrate important people and events in black history in the U.S. and Canada. One of the fascinating chapters in that history is the story of the railroad that wasn’t – the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad wasn’t a real railroad. And it wasn’t underground (beneath or below the earth). It was a network (system) of people who worked together to help slaves who had escaped from their owners to move from the southern U.S. to the northern states and Canada where they could be free. It was called “underground” because everything they did had to be secret. They used railroad language so that if anyone heard them talking, they wouldn’t know what they were talking about.

The Underground Railroad was made up of meeting places and safe houses – “stations” – that connected different different routes and different parts of each route. Slaves, who were sometimes referred to as “freight,” walked or rode in farm wagons about 10-20 miles (16-32 km) from one station to the next in small groups, usually at night. During the day, they rested in farm buildings, church basements (under the floor), or caves (large holes in the ground).

Conductors – free blacks, people who used to be slaves, and friendly white people – helped lead each group of escaped slaves from station to station along the railroad.

Traveling along the Underground Railroad was dangerous, even after the slaves crossed into the northern states. Bounty hunters, people who tried to find and catch slaves for money, were active, even in the North. If slaves were caught, the laws didn’t protect them very well, and many of those who were caught were taken back to their owners in the South.

Even though it was difficult and dangerous, about 100,000 slaves traveled the Underground Railroad to freedom in the northern U.S. and Canada before the Civil War.

This year the New York Times published an interesting set of articles about the Underground Railroad. The first, “Harriet Tubman’s Path to Freedom,” tells the story of Tubman, the most famous conductor. After she escaped slavery, she made 13 more trips along the railroad to help other slaves make their way to freedom.

The first article includes a map that changes as you read to show the places the article is talking about. At the end of the article you will find links to the other articles. Now that you know a little about the Underground Railroad and some of the words used to talk about it, you will find it easier to understand this important chapter of U.S. history when you read them.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English website.

Photo of The Underground Railroad Memorial courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

This entry was posted in Life in the United States. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Railroad That Wasn’t

  1. Peter says:

    U know
    Watching tv shows ,movies and stuff
    As well as Interacting with people in the real world
    , all I hear are words ,slangs ,idioms, even culturally -driven terms that I learned through Jeff, Lucy ,Warren Jessica and all the back took boys many many moons ago.

    99 ,5 percent of them
    Please note
    I m not exaggerating for effect, people

    Jeff covers every nook and cranny and then some
    ( guess where I first heard and learned ” nook and cranny ,years ago:))

    Jeff even doesn’t stop there he categorizes the commonality of the terms
    he has been generously educating us

    I m better for that: for jeff ‘s brain child : Eslpod

    However my tortuous comment 🙂 is not the point

    The point I m trying to bring home is:

    I m back baby :))


  2. Flaminglips96 says:

    Thank you for your introduction to the good article about the Underground Railroad, Warren.

  3. Peter says:

    First off, I like the post and the associated articles.

    I m familiar with the ” Underground Railroad movement” that sandbagged lots of farmers of the south ,so to speak :))

    I have seen a bunch of documentaries
    Read a hand-full of books
    Watched A score of movies ,some of which are deemed as Hollywood classics.

    However ,I never turns the pages of the big book of US history back to the period to see how it all actually went down in real life.

    Ur post and the hyperlinks
    are very intriguing.
    I must say , reading through ur post and those articles ,I have a good mind to go back down the history and flip through the Underground Railroad pages to see what historians have to say about it.

    Being said that, I have formed an idea about the whole thing over years already which is bleak, to say the least.

    I take pride in the fact that for that dark and abysmal period of US history Canada ,as ,one might say ,is the same in recent memory , became the beacon of freedom : a save haven away from the belligerent.


  4. emiliano says:

    Who of us or which country do not have a black history?. No one.

    Telling or writing it, and being enough honest to recognize it could be an example
    for other generations just of not repeating it again.

    Humans are so, sometime very very bad and cruel but other side of us, humans, is the good and hero like this woman Harried who try to help other slaves risking herself absolutely.

    It happened the same with persons who helped Jewess to scape from Nazis in the last second war.

    May be these persons made this world not so bad as it use to be.
    Good for them.


  5. emiliano says:

    I want to share my own sorrow with all you friends of the ESL blog.

    My sister Paquita has died this morning, I am very very sad.
    Sure God has her in Heaven, she was a nice good person even
    a friend to me her brother.


  6. Peter says:

    I m sorry to hear that
    Dear Emiliano

    I m so sorry for your loss.
    U have my thoughts and prayers with you

    My deepest condolences


  7. emiliano says:

    Thank you so much Peter.
    I am really very sad. emiliano

  8. Mary Carmen says:

    Dear Emiliano

    I really know how you are feeling, so it is such a state of loss.

    As i was reading your post, i couldn’t help recalling an Eric Clapton’s song titled ” Change the world “, which happens to sound in a later nineties’ film by the named ‘Phenomenon”. I remember when i watch that film that i saw one of my adolescence idols, John Travolta, playing a role of a generous man, and it eased me a lot because by then i was feeling quite blue.
    Believe me Emiliano, it is not my intention to treat your situation lightly. On the contrary, I’ m trying to cheer you up.

    Your truly ESL blog friend
    Mari Carmen

  9. emiliano says:

    Life it is so, I know that, and sometimes there is a time for everything.
    Now I am going through not so good time, my wife it is out home in
    “Una residencia de la tercera edad” and now my dear sister is dead.
    Well, despite it I am not so bad, sad yes, but could be that the illness
    of my wife has made me strong.

    Thank you so much dear Mari Carmen, gracias muchas gracias querida
    amiga, I posted it because all of you are like a big family to me.

    What I have to do now it is being a consolation to my siter´s husband
    that is desolate.
    They married on the year 1969 being previously four years being boy/girl
    All their life together, more or less like Cuca and me that married on 1970
    but I have her, talking with Cuca every day and seeing her frequently.
    Tomorrow we are going to be close one to the other, Cuca and emiliano, for
    seven hours.

    Againg thank you Mari Carmen, thank you Peter. emiliano

Comments are closed.