For hundreds of years, US history has been viewed largely as white history. Now Americans are embracing a more inclusive attitude to the past. In particular, record numbers are visiting sites that commemorate the “Underground Railroad”, a secret network that helped tens of thousands of  black Americans flee slavery in the south to freedom in the north and Canada in the years leading up to the US Civil War.

The Johnson House in Philadelphia in 1934, a stop on the Underground Railroad
The Johnson House in Philadelphia in 1934, a stop on the Underground Railroad © Granger/Bridgeman Images

The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad – but rather an informal network of people, mostly white abolitionists and black freedmen, who hid fugitive slaves in their attics and cellars as the escapees braved hundreds of miles to flee bondage. Not that I knew any of that when I set out to broaden a view of US history that had been predominantly shaped by a 1960s white American education. Recent books and shows have romanticised the network as if it had physical trains and conductors – like many others, I couldn’t honestly say I knew the name was just a metaphor.

“Freedom seekers” endured the frigid winters of my hometown of Detroit, and the bitter winds of my adoptive home of Chicago, on their route – and I never even knew it. I had no idea that the final stop on the Underground Railroad to Canada was minutes from the hospital where I was born. No one taught me Underground Railroad history as a child, and I didn’t teach it to my children: this critical part of American history was all but invisible for decades, but a new school of heritage tourism is putting the record straight.

An abolitionist map of slaveholding states, c1838-1860
An abolitionist map of slaveholding states, c1838-1860 © Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

In recent years, hundreds of previously unknown UGRR sites have been authenticated and linked in the US National Park Service’s “Network to Freedom”. The number of visitors to these sites has risen sharply, according to the volunteers and local historians who mostly staff them (the NPS says there are no nationwide statistics). The NPS now offers a self-guided driving tour of key sites in the life of Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery to become one of the most famous “conductors” on the Railroad. A fitting tribute in the 200th year since her birth. 

Visitors seem undeterred by the fact that there is often not much left to see: the need for secrecy at the time, and the low priority put on preserving black American history, means many buildings used as “stations” no longer exist. Some local historians have tried to reconstruct the dark and cramped spaces where freedom seekers hid. But this kind of tourism is often largely a journey of the imagination. 

The Ton farmhouse, c1880
The Ton farmhouse, c1880
Inside the Bonine Carriage House, where fugitive slaves were hidden
Inside the Bonine Carriage House, where fugitive slaves were hidden © Patti Waldmeir

Over the past few months, I’ve met dozens of Americans who have taken this journey, closing their eyes and opening their hearts to imagine what it was like for up to 100,000 people to brave cold, hunger, heat and fear. We have ducked under rafters and peeked into crevices, squeezed through dirt tunnels and peered into false-bottom wagons at some of the many sites in the US Midwest. And together we have marvelled at how we could know so little about the racial history that has made us who we are. 

“I must have come past here a million times, we only live five minutes away,” Angela Smith, 59, told me as we stood on the spot of one of the most important UGRR stops near a river crossing outside Chicago. Smith and Rashid Salahuddin, 57, live near the former farm of Dutch immigrants Jan and Aagje Ton, “conductors” on one of the most heavily travelled Canada-bound routes. But they had no idea it was there – and there is nothing left of the original farm buildings.

Harriet Tubman, the railroad’s most famous “conductor”
Harriet Tubman, the railroad’s most famous “conductor” © Corbis via Getty Images

We visited the site on a chilly day marked by light rain with Larry A McClellan, the leading expert on the Underground Railroad in the Illinois area, who is helping put together a “Freedom Trail” of UGRR sites. He tells the story of 16-year-old Caroline Quarlls, the child of an enslaved mother and a slaveowner, who ran away on 4 July 1843 to seek freedom via the Underground Railroad through Chicago. McClellan reports in his new book, Onward to Chicago: Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad in Northeastern Illinois, that when Quarlls knew she was safe, she is said to have spat on her hands, rubbed them together and declared, “Master ain’t got my best days.” She went on to raise a family in Canada.

Smith listens to these tales as she gazes across the Little Calumet River and the green lawns, which are all that are left of the Ton Farm, one of the main UGRR stations in the area (it is now a marina). A sign marking the historic significance of the Ton Farm was only erected last year. “There wasn’t a push for historic preservation of the Underground Railroad until the early 2000s,” says Kristina Estle, director of the Underground Railroad Museum in Ohio. “It was almost like a light switch was turned on, historical societies started popping up and the Underground Railroad was seen as important – but we have already lost so much.” 

Bonine Carriage House in Cass County, Michigan
Bonine Carriage House in Cass County, Michigan © Patti Waldmeir

“It’s a challenge to get beyond the folklore and the mythology,” says Jennifer Tosch, cultural historian and founder of Black Heritage Tours, one of the few tour operators that include the sites in their tours. “Everything was kept cloak and dagger, the whole point was to keep it underground, so there is very little documentation.” She notes that much of what we know was passed down orally. “This history isn’t taught generally, not even now,” says Stacey Toussaint, Haitian-American founder of Inside Out tours, which does a slavery and Underground Railroad tour of New York City. She says that the wave of protests that America experienced after the death of George Floyd in 2020 “made people who weren’t already aware that there is a racial problem in our country look for information on how we all got here”.

In Cass County, Michigan, I find a rare example of a place where the narrative lives on – thanks in part to a newspaper interview given by one of the fugitive slaves hiding there in 1847 when slave catchers sought to kidnap Perry Sanford and take him back to Kentucky. Visitors can peek into the rough-hewn attic where he hid in the home of Quaker Stephen Bogue, the most famous local “conductor”.

Just down the road, tourists can visit the carriage house where “stationmasters” James and Sarah Bonine harboured fleeing slaves, and can still climb a rickety set of stairs in the ramshackle structure. Daylight streams though the gap-toothed planks of its walls, towards the attic where fugitives slept at night. They can also see a reconstruction of the kind of false-bottomed wagon that local abolitionists used to transport fugitives on their way to freedom. Rural Cass County still boasts black and white descendants of both those who hid there and those who helped them to escape.

Milton House, part of the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin
Milton House, part of the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin © Randy Duchaine/Alamy Stock Photo
The tunnel in Milton House, Wisconsin
The tunnel in Milton House, Wisconsin © Patti Waldmeir

The Bonine House Research Library in Cass County has extensive contemporary records and primary source material, partly because the 1847 Slavecatcher Raid spawned an unusual pair of court cases. At issue was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 (later strengthened in 1850), which empowered bounty hunters to abduct even those fugitives who had escaped to free states like Michigan, and return them to the south. “In those days a slave was a piece of property; the average fugitive was worth $800, or $15,000 in today’s money,” says McClellan. Under the 1850 law, those who helped fugitives could be sent to jail for six months and fined $1,000, a very substantial penalty. The 1847 Cass County raid, though, ended with the Kentucky slave catchers going home empty-handed, after a local court case forced them to release nine fugitives they had captured. When they later sued for the value of the fugitives in US district court in Detroit, they lost that case also.

Milton House in the 1910s
Milton House in the 1910s © Keighton Klos, Milton House Museum
The cabin connecting to Milton House via an underground passage
The cabin connecting to Milton House via an underground passage © Keighton Klos, Milton House Museum

I shared a tour of Milton House, one of the best preserved “stations” in Wisconsin, with a family of 15 visiting Mennonites, the women in starched white bonnets and floor-length skirts, who squeezed with me through the narrow walls of the low tunnel used to spirit fugitives away from the house to their hiding place in a log-cabin kitchen. At the Underground Railroad Living Museum in Detroit, I joined a group of elderly churchgoers, including Janet Tirrell, 74, a retired principal, who said she was “ashamed” that she knew so little about the network.

My educational journey has only just begun: the NPS Network to Freedom lists over 700 Underground Railroad sites in 39 US states. That should keep me busy. 

“Travel with Tubman” self-guided tour is available on the National Park Service app. New York City UGRR tours, and Tours of Ton Farm with Larry McClellan, Cass County UGRR Site Driving Tour, Milton House, Underground Railroad Living Museum “Flight to Freedom” tour, Detroit,

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