UNDERGROUND RAILROAD The Underground Railroad, which was neither "underground" (except in the sense that it was secret) nor literally a railroad, was the popular term applied to the loose-knit northern organization which, in defiance of the Fugitive Slave laws, aided runaway slaves on their trek from the South to freedom in Canada.
The term itself originated as a result of the widespread use of railway expressions in reference to the actual operation of the system. The fugitive slaves, for example, were referred to as "passengers" or "freight," while the relatively fixed routes of escape through the North were called "lines." Northern abolitionists and other sympathizers who were actively involved in the Underground Railroad were often known as "conductors," with their homes or other designated stopping places en route being dubbed "depots" or "stations." The system extended from Maryland across Pennsylvania and New York or New England, and from Kentucky and Virginia across the Ohio River into Ohio and ultimately into Canada. Although the secretive nature of the system precludes an accurate approximation, it is generally believed that the number of Afro-American slaves who escaped via the Underground Railroad was between 40,000 and 100,000.
Contrary to popular impression, very few northern "conductors" actually went into the South in order to lead fugitive slaves north. Notwithstanding the exploits of Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave generally had to rely on his or her own prowess and courage, along with the North Star for guidance, to reach Ohio or Pennsylvania. Another popular misconception is that the Underground Railroad was essentially a "white institution," with white abolitionists playing the major role in it. As historians August Meier and Elliott Rudwick have pointed out, however, this belief is an exaggeration. While it is conceded that the activities of some white abolitionists (e.g., Levi Coffin) should not be minimized, Meier and Rudwick point out that "the most arduous and dangerous part of the fugitive's journey was in the South, where there was seldom anyone to help him. And once the fugitive did reach the North, it was usually the free Negroes who took the initiative in aiding him." See also: FUGITIVE SLAVE LAWS and HARRIET TUBMAN.