One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 people had escaped via the “railroad”.
Those who travelled via these routes disappeared from public view as if they had “gone to ground”. After enslaved people became fugitives, they entered a “depot” and no trace of them could be found: they were simply passed from one depot to another until they arrived in Canada.
There were many well-used routes stretching west through Ohio to Indiana and Iowa. Others headed north through Pennsylvania and into New England, or through Detroit on their way to Canada. However, there were other routes that went further south to Florida and even one that went to Mexico.
The desired destination was usually British North America (now Canada), with as many as 30,000 people making this journey during the mid-1800s.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made capturing people escaping enslavement a lucrative business and thus a difficult task. As a result, a series of clandestine networks began to form to spirit people away.
People known as “conductors” guided the fugitives from slavery on their way to freedom. Help came from diverse groups: enslaved and free Blacks, Native Americans, and people of different religious and ethnic groups.
Hiding places included private homes, churches and schoolhouses. These were called “stations,” “safe houses,” and “depots”. The people operating them were known as “stationmasters”.
Among the best known “conductors” who led escapees to freedom were Harriet Tubman and William Still, who led over 800 enslaved people to safety and earned the name "Father of the Railroad”.
Another prominent conductor was Henrietta Bowers, a Philadelphian tailor who used her husband’s undertaking business to hide fugitives amid funeral processions and even smuggled enslaved people out of the city in coffins.
One of the best known “station masters” was John Brown, the abolitionist who advocated armed insurrection.
Using often great ingenuity, fugitives would concoct disguises, forgeries and other strategies to aid their flight. Although the fugitives sometimes travelled on boat or train, typically they travelled on foot or by wagon in groups of one to three escapees. Abolitionist Charles Turner Torrey and his colleagues rented horses and wagons and often transported as many as 15 or 20 enslaved people at a time.
"Slave catchers" and enslavers watched for runaways on the expected routes of escape and offered rewards to encourage public complicity in apprehension.
One religious group aiding the escapees was the Quaker Abolitionists, who were heavily involved in operating many of the railroads. In the early 1800s, Quaker Isaac T. Hopper set up a network in Philadelphia that helped enslaved people on the run, while at the same time Quakers in North Carolina laid the groundwork for routes and shelters for escapees.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church, established in 1816, was another proactive religious group helping fugitives from slavery.
As the financial rewards offered by slave owners encouraged bounty hunters, so support groups began to form to help the escapes. Vigilance Committees, as they became known, were set up on New York in 1835 and Philadelphia in 1838, but before long they were expanding their activities to help guide enslaved people on the run.
When frictions between North and South culminated in the Civil War, many Blacks, both enslaved and free, fought for the Union Army. Following Union victory in the Civil War, on December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery. Following its passage, in some cases the Underground Railroad operated in the opposite direction, as fugitives returned from Canada to the United States.