Underground Railroad Sites You Should Visit, Mapped
The Underground Railroad started in the early 19th century and played an important role in the anti-slavery movement.
In the decades before the Civil War (1861-1865) and the Emancipation Proclamation (Sept. 22, 1862), an estimated 100,000 people escaped slavery with the help of the Underground Railroad. This clandestine operation used formal and informal safe houses and volunteers who banded together to bring people in the south to northern states and Canada.
Many safe houses were lost to history or are private property. But several important sites connected to the network remain standing and are open to the public.
These are 10 Underground Railroad sites — ordered from south to north — where you can learn about the inspiring history of enslaved peoples' fight for freedom.
Fort Monroe National Monument
Location: Fort Monroe, Virginia
Underground Railroad sites are usually associated with pre-Civil War activity. But we couldn't leave out the Fort Monroe National Monument. One of the few military outposts in Virginia controlled by the Union, this site proved a turning point for abolition.
In May 1861, a month after the war had started, slaves working on a Confederate fortification escaped and fled to Fort Monroe. According to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, slaves found in northern states had to be returned to the South — which is why so many kept going until they reached Canada, where they were safe from being trafficked again. But Union General Benjamin F. Butler refused to give up the refugees, declaring them "war contraband."
While this rhetoric still refers to people as objects, it proved to be an effective (and lawful) solution. From then on, Congress made it legal for anyone who made it to the fort to remain free. Because of its location near Richmond, around 10,000 people escaped here.
Camp Nelson National Monument
Location: Nicholasville, Kentucky
Like Fort Monroe, Camp Nelson was a beacon of hope in the slave state of Kentucky. A Union depot and training center, fugitive men who came to the camp and enlisted in the Union Army were granted freedom.
Initially, their wives and children were not afforded the same rights, and many died before Congress extended emancipation to families of Black soldiers.
Overall, around 10, 000 people reached freedom here before the Civil War was over.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Location: Washington, D.C.
Frederick Douglass is one of the most fascinating figures in American history.
Born into slavery, he taught himself how to read and write. After escaping, he became a prominent abolitionist orator, even going to Europe to rally support for the cause. He was also an ardent supporter of women's right to vote.
His home is a little farther from other monuments in Washington, D.C., but it's worth a visit. The house is filled with furniture and items that belonged to this hero.
Location: Jacksonville, Illinois
The oldest building in Illinois, Beecher Hall is part of Illinois College, which was a center for the abolitionist movement. Before the war, the structure was used to spread anti-slavery ideas to students and provide a space for activists in a mostly pro-slavery community.
Many students who attended classes in this hall became part of the railroad. Others openly spoke in favor of emancipation, despite threats, harassment and the murder of one of the town's most prominent abolitionists, Elijah Lovejoy.
Peter Mott House
Location: Landside, New Jersey
This house was once the home of Black farmer Peter Mott and Ann Thomas Mott, his wife. Though it is unclear whether they themselves were born into slavery, the Motts played an active role as conductors of the Underground Railroad.
Located in a free Black community, the home hid numerous "pilots" (freedom-seeking former slaves). Mott was a minister at Snow Hill Church, where he preached for abolition and gathered sources to help free Black people and those who escaped slavery.
Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site
Location: Fountain City, Indiana
Countless people worked as part of the Underground Railroad, but Levi Coffin and his wife, Catharine, stand out. Coffin is sometimes referred to as the president of the railroad since he helped over 2,000 people to freedom.
This house, an Indiana State Historic Site, served as a safe house for many fugitive slaves. Tours around the house provide valuable information about the network's operations and the Coffins, who remained actively engaged in the cause after the war and helped newly freed Black people gain their footing.
Second Baptist Church
Location: Detroit, Michigan
Black churches were essential to Underground Railroad operations. They provided a safe space for abolitionists to come together, and acted as a refuge for fugitives. Located a boat ride from Canada, Detroit was a key point for the railroad, which relied heavily on the Second Baptist Church.
You can still visit this active church, founded in 1836 by freed people who left the First Baptist Church for its racist beliefs. Figures like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth were linked to this landmark.
Besides acting as a hiding spot, the church helped Black immigrants from the South find housing and jobs.
Boston African American National Historic Site
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
This national historic site protects 15 buildings that tell the story of Boston's pre-Civil War Black community. It is one of the most important landmarks in the city. You can walk along the Black Heritage Trail to see it all.
Along the way, stop at the African Meeting House, the oldest existing Black church in the country and a place for congregation and planning for abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Charles Sumner.
You'll also see the first primary school for Black children in the city, as well as different memorials.
Harriet Tubman Home
Location: Auburn, New York
Often called the "Moses of her people," Harriet Tubman is perhaps the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad. After escaping slavery and reaching the North, Tubman went back into Southern territory numerous times to help bring over 70 people to freedom. She also led a Civil War expedition that liberated over 700 slaves.
While several sites are connected to Tubman, this national historic park may be the most important. It is comprised of three sites that were significant to the heroine: the Harriet Tubman Residence, the Thompson A.M.E. Zion Church and the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged.
Tubman and her freed parents lived in the first site from 1859, while the second site served as her church and as a center for underground activities. After emancipation, Tubman dedicated herself to other causes, such as women's rights and caring for elderly Black people who lacked resources. She eventually died in her home for the elderly after providing dignity in old age to hundreds.
The city of Auburn has launched an app with two self-guided tours of the site and other important points connected to the Underground Railroad in Cayuga County.
Harriet Beecher Stowe House
Location: Brunswick, Maryland
Though Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known for her novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the writer was an active abolitionist. She wrote the famed work in this house based on interviews and conversations she had with former fugitive slaves while living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Published in 1851, the book was an immediate success and caused an uproar in both the United States and Europe. While it didn't change the minds of people who supported the horrors of slavery, it did open the eyes of apathetic Northerners who avoided being involved in the debate.
It has problematic elements by modern standards, but the book's impact is undeniable, as it furthered consciousness and boosted the abolitionist cause.