Underground Railroad made stops in Baltimore

JACQUES KELLY

October 22, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Think about it: The place where crowds watch outdoor performers between the two Harborplace pavilions was once a station on the fabled Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad, the secret route that shepherded thousands of slaves out of bondage to freedom, sliced through Baltimore. One of its spurs was the old Philadelphia steamship packet line whose boats docked at the corner of Pratt and Light streets.

Consider this too. One day there might be an official Underground Railroad tour that will meander throughout the Inner Harbor's well-known tourist attractions and some that are not so well known.

A National Park Service study team, headed by agency historian John C. Paige, visited Baltimore locations this week that were connected to the Underground Railroad. The Park Service wants to interpret and commemorate this chapter of American history.

"During the period from the 1830s to the end of the Civil War, a secret network of routes, people and hiding places developed to assist slaves escaping to freedom . . . the Underground Railroad. From 40,000 to 100,000 slaves are estimated to have escaped during this period to find freedom in the northern states and the territories of the United States, as well as Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean area," stated a National Parks Service newsletter published in May.

A local tour might include the President Street Station, the Oldtown Friends Meeting House (Aisquith and Fayette streets), The McKim Free School (Baltimore and Aisquith streets), the Mount Clare Station (Pratt and Poppleton streets), the ancient streets of Fells Point and places along the harbor's edge.

Baltimore was a major station on the Underground Railroad that began in Georgia and the Carolinas and passed through Virginia. The route continued through Central Maryland and into Pennsylvania. Most of these secret trails did not involve traditional 19th century railroads -- steam locomotives and passenger cars. The Underground Railroad traditionally used rivers, swamps and back roads. While on the run, slaves hid in safe houses or farm buildings. They often traveled at night to escape detection. The North Star was their beacon.

Maryland was a slave state but Baltimore had the largest number of free blacks of any city in the North or South. African-Americans freely mixed with whites on the streets and in public places. It would not have been unusual for free blacks to be seen on Pratt Street, the wharves or in the railway stations.

At the same time, Baltimore was hardly a free-passage zone. Slave traders had jails downtown. The most notorious were located near today's Camden Yards. On the other hand, the city's Quakers were opposed to slavery and often helped fleeing slaves.

During this period, the city was a major transportation center, with dozens of steam boats and sailing ships in the harbor, plus three interstate railroad carriers -- the Baltimore and Ohio, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore (President Street Station) and the Northern Central (the Calvert Station). These railroads and steamships must have been efficient escape routes because in 1858 this notice was nailed up at the President Street Station, south of today's Little Italy:

"All Colored People (Bond [slave] or Free) wishing to travel on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, will be required to bring with them to the ticket office, President Street Depot, some responsible white person, a citizen of Baltimore, known to the undersigned, to sign a bond before they can proceed. Wm. Crawford, Agent."

As early as 1838, slaves were using the railroad to escape north. Frederick Douglass, for instance, dressed as a sailor and escaped by train.

But it was perhaps escaped slave Henry "Box" Brown who sought and obtained his freedom the most inventive way. He had himself shipped to Philadelphia via Baltimore in a wooden shipping crate on the baggage car.

When Brown emerged from his traveling box, safe above the Mason-Dixon Line, he opening remark was simply: "How do you do, gentleman?"

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