Underground Railroad

An Underground Railroad sounds like a great idea. No standing out in the cold. A respite from the rain. A fun little journey toward the center of the Earth. But don't buy your ticket just yet—as it turns out, the Underground Railroad was actually a network of safe houses that helped slaves escape from slave states to free states.

LanguageEnglish Language
U.S. HistoryAntebellum Period and Manifest Destiny: 1815–1860

Transcript

00:25

You know – one with sleeping cars, train tracks, and… paying passengers.

00:29

Plus, I was told that this thing was “underground,” so I spent the first two hours trying to find

00:34

my way through a surprisingly spacious gopher hole…

00:37

But I just ran into someone who gave me the low-down.

00:40

Apparently, this supposed “railroad” is actually just a system of paths and secret

00:45

locations for slaves to make their way to freedom in the North.

00:49

No steam whistles, no “choo-choo!” – no nothin’. It’s elaborate, this “railroad.”

00:54

We’re talking stops in Mexico, as well as Florida,

00:56

where the Spanish have still got their hands on everything.

00:59

So… why the confusion?

01:01

Who decided to be difficult and start calling this non-railroad… a railroad?

01:05

From what I hear, it arose out of a number of railway terms that the slaves were already

01:09

using to describe certain aspects of it.

01:12

For example, this Harriet Tubman – who reportedly helps escort slaves along the way –

01:17

is referred to as a “conductor.”

01:19

Some of the safe houses located along the route are known as “stations.”

01:23

These are just like real railroad stations, except they don’t smell quite so much like discarded Funyuns.

01:30

Slaves also draw some connections to the Bible.

01:33

I guess a lot of these slaves must consider Canada “the promised land.”

01:36

They must really love hockey.

01:39

Anyway, many of them refer to their travels northward as “the Gospel Train.”

01:44

Word on the street…

01:45

…and when I say street, I mean dusty dirt road…

01:48

…is that many slaves are too scared to… “take a ride on the Reading,” as it were.

01:52

And understandably so. They know that, if they were to get caught as fugitives, they

01:56

would be killed, beaten and/or returned to their former master.

02:00

The trains I deal with?

02:02

If someone can’t pay their fare, we just toss ‘em off at the next bale of hay.

02:07

Not only that, but the “free” slaves helping the slaves out of the south

02:10

are really sticking their necks out…

02:12

… and you know what those southerners like to do with necks.

02:17

Ever since they passed that Fugitive Slave Act back in 1850…

02:20

… everyone has been on high alert.

02:21

There are legalized raids and mounted pro-slavery men with dogs…

02:25

… and these dogs are not just interested in playing fetch. Not with sticks, anyway.

02:30

So obviously, I’m in the wrong place.

02:35

No “blue line express” is likely to come rolling through these woods any time soon.

02:40

If you see Ms. Tubman, let her know I’m lookin’ for her...

02:43

I’m hoping she’s as good at tracking down actual railroads

02:46

as she is at running the metaphorical ones…