Does “Underground Railroad” mean anything to you? To Canadians, it’s a special moment of pride in our country’s short history. Actually, it wasn’t about trains. The Underground Railroad was a network of 1850s guides, some 40,000 activists who risked their lives leading enslaved blacks from the U.S. across the border to Ontario, Canada—and freedom.
And if walls could talk, a tiny church in St. Catharines, ON would tell quite a tale. Salem Chapel, a British Methodist Episcopal church, was once headquarters for the Underground Railroad. If there was a “conductor,” it was Harriet Tubman. An ex-slave from Maryland nicknamed “Black Moses,” Tubman ferried at least 300 blacks across the U.S./Canadian border over eight years. For her efforts, she carried a $40,000 bounty on her head.
Following the North Star, “blacks only travelled across at night,” says Rochelle Bush, historical director of Salem Chapel, a National Historic Site built in 1855. “It was an incredibly dangerous time.” Slaves would cross the Niagara River, then hide in a safe house until other Railroad members could whisk them away to more secure locations. In a basement of Bertie Hall, Fort Erie, ON, visitors can see recreated escapee quarters of the dark underground hiding place. Today “at least 7,000 people in St. Catharines can trace their roots back to fugitive slaves,” Bush says.
Finding safe haven in Canada intensified with the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed Americans to capture runaway slaves. In 1833, however, British Parliament had passed the Slavery Abolition Act, giving all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. That meant all blacks in Canada could live as free citizens. Underground Railroad communities cropped up throughout southern Ontario. The Railroad reached its peak around 1865. Today, visitors can explore this dramatic chapter of Canada’s past at 29 sites, seven along Niagara’s Freedom Trail in the Niagara/St. Catharines area.
In Fort Erie, a plaque known simply as “The Crossing” marks the riverfront spot where many slaves crossed the swirling Niagara River from Buffalo, NY to Fort Eerie. Abolitionist boat captains smuggled some across, while others swam—some successfully, many not. The story of freedom seekers escaping brutal conditions in the American South is one of desperation and sacrifice. The Underground Railroad gave them hope.
If you go Toronto is the gateway to Ontario’s Underground Railroad. Most of the sites are within a one-and-a-half to three-hour drive from the city. www.ontariotravel.net www.tourismniagara.com www.ontariosfunconnection.com www.blackhistorysociety.ca.
The CTC produced a version of this story for its GoMedia website.