The brave network of people who hid slaves and guided them to freedom in Canada became known as the Underground Railroad. Ontario's route of historic sites honours those who fought for Black freedom and rights.
BY CATHY STAPELLS, text and photographs courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission
- Salem Chapel, St. Catharines
If walls could talk, a tiny church in St. Catharines would tell a huge story. Salem Chapel, British Methodist Episcopal Church was once a headquarters for the Underground Railroad, the network that guided slaves from the United States to freedom in Canada.
Many escaped slaves, or freedom seekers, found sanctuary at the church and in St. Catharines because of ex-slave Harriet Tubman, who guided more than 300 slaves across the Canada/U.S. border during her eight years in St. Catharines.
“Tubman was the greatest ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad, risking her life again and again to bring others to freedom,”" says Rochelle Bush, historical director of Salem Chapel, built in 1855 and designated a national historic site.
Tubman was born in Maryland around 1820 and escaped from slavery in 1849. Known as “Black Moses” because she led her people to freedom, she returned to the American south 19 times to guide slaves to safety, including her own parents in 1857. “She lived in St. Catharines from 1851 to 1858 and made 11 trips from the city. And she carried a $40,000 bounty on her head,” says Bush. Herself a descendent of freedom seekers, Bush's father's family arrived from Richmond, Va., in 1830 and settled in the Oro/Collingwood area. Her mother's family arrived from South Columbia, S.C., in 1844 and settled around St. Catharines.
After the U.S. Civil War, Tubman moved to Auburn, N.Y., where she continued to work for the advancement of rights for blacks and women. She died in her 90s in 1913.
Tubman's story, like that of all the freedom seekers escaping brutal conditions in the American South, is one of desperation and sacrifice. The Underground Railroad gave them hope.
The Railroad is the name for the network of people who hid and guided slaves and refugees to freedom in Canada by following the North Star. It originated in the southern United States and wound its way through the northern states to Canada, where blacks could live as free citizens.
- Bertie Hall, Fort Erie
First established as early as the 1500s by sympathetic abolitionists, both black and white, the Railroad reached its peak between 1780 and 1865. Clothed in secrecy, very few facts were recorded about the operation, but historians believe approximately 40,000 freedom seekers reached Canada via the Underground Railroad.
They came to Upper Canada, as Ontario was known in the late 18th century, because it was seen as a safe haven for blacks. In 1793, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe introduced a precedent-setting bill to prevent the importation of slaves into Upper Canada. At the time, more and more Empire Loyalists (British subjects loyal to Britain after the American Revolution) were coming north into Canada and bringing their slaves with them.
Finding a safe haven in Upper Canada became even more intense with the passage of the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed the capture of runaway slaves in the northern United States. In 1833, the British Parliament had passed the Slavery Abolition Act, giving all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.
Underground Railroad communities exist throughout southern Ontario, extending from Windsor to Toronto and north from Fort Erie to Owen Sound, Thornbury and Barrie. Visitors can explore this dramatic aspect of Canada's past at 29 sites around the province, seven of which lie along Niagara's Freedom Trail in the Niagara/St. Catharines area.
In Fort Erie, for example, a plaque known as “The Crossing” marks the spot on the riverfront where many freedom seekers crossed the swirling Niagara River from Buffalo to Fort Erie. Some were smuggled across by abolitionist boat captains, while others swam across – some successfully, many not.
“Blacks only travelled across at night. It was an incredibly dangerous time,” says Bush, a passionate spokesperson for promoting the history of the Underground Railroad.
Also in Fort Erie is Bertie Hall, which today houses the Mildred M. Mahoney Doll's House Gallery, a collection covering 200 years of dollhouses. However, this stately, Greek Revival-style home reportedly served as a “safe house” for freedom seekers who had crossed the Niagara River.
Bertie Hall was built circa 1830 by William Forsyth Sr., whose two sons, Brock and Nelson, were well-known abolitionists. Slaves would cross the Niagara River in darkness and hide in the safe house until they could be whisked away to more secure locations. Although never proven, rumours abound that an underground tunnel linked Bertie Hall to the river. In the basement, visitors can view recreated quarters of the dark, underground haven of the freedom seekers.
Niagara's Freedom Trail also includes a stop at the St. Catharines Museum at the Welland Canal Centre, where the “Follow the North Star” exhibit explores the Underground Railroad experience and recounts the rich legacy of Niagara's African Canadians.
“There are 27 historic black families in Niagara, with the majority in St. Catharines,” says Bush. “At least 7,000 people in the city can trace their roots back to fugitive slaves.”
- Historic Site, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Dresden
Many other noteworthy sites along the Underground Railroad are located outside the Niagara region. The African Canadian Heritage Tour, the Central Ontario Network for Black History and the Ontario government have created a booklet that details all 29 sites across the province.
In Dresden, Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site and Josiah Henson House celebrate the achievements of Josiah Henson and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Henson escaped slavery in Kentucky with his wife and four children and settled in Upper Canada, where he quickly became an important part of the Underground Railroad. In 1841 near Dresden, he and several other abolitionists purchased 200 acres of land and founded a vocational school for black refugees called the British American Institute, and soon residents plied their trades at local farms, mills and industries.
At age 60, Henson wrote his autobiography. His memoirs inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe in the writing of her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year of publication. President Abraham Lincoln credited the outcry against slavery sparked by her book as the catalyst of the American Civil War. Henson died in 1883 at the age of 94 and is buried at the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site.
Ontario's Underground Railroad sites honour the sacrifices of so many people who fought for black freedom and rights. It's a fascinating story, one that everyone should learn and no one should forget.
If you go
For more information on this destination visit the Canadian Tourism Commission website www.travelcanada.ca.
Toronto is the gateway to Ontario's Underground Railroad. Most of the sites are within a 1.5 to three-hour drive of the city.
- By air: Air Canada (1-888-247-2262 or www.aircanada.ca), Air Canada Jazz (1-888-247-2262 or www.flyjazz.ca), Tango (1-800-315-1390 or www.flytango.ca), WestJet (1-800-538-5696 or www.westjet.com), Jetsgo (1-866-440-0441 or www.jetsgo.net) and CanJet (1-800-809-7777 or www.canjet.ca) serve Toronto from many Canadian cities.
- By land: Via Rail (1-888-842-7245 or www.viarail.ca) and Greyhound (1-800-661-8747 or www.greyhound.ca) both serve Toronto.
- Ontario's Underground Railroad sites and Niagara's Freedom Trail can be visited individually or on a guided tour.
- African Canadian Heritage Tour: (519) 354-7383 or www.africanhertour.org
- Tourism Niagara: 1-800-263-2988 or www.tourismniagara.com
- Ontario Black History Society: (416) 867-9420 or www.blackhistorysociety.ca
- Niagara Bed & Breakfast Association: (905) 468-0123 or http://www.bba.notl.on.ca Niagara region B&Bs range from historic manor houses to river-view countryside farms.
- Ontario Tourism: 1-800-668-2746 or www.ontariotravel.net
Cathy Stapells is a Mississauga, Ont.-based writer who was smitten with the travel bug after her grandmother took her to Hawaii. A professional travel writer for 15 years, and former assistant travel editor at the Toronto Sun, she believes that Canada is as intriguing and exotic as any other destination in the world.