Destination Freedom: Traveling PA's Underground Railroad

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A trip along the routes of Pennsylvania's Underground Railroad satisfies both the craving for adventure and the quest for knowledge. Blending the contemporary with the historic, it highlights Pennsylvania's important role in helping slaves to freedom, as well as the state's place in the national civil rights movement.

Not an actual railroad at all, the Underground Railroad was a series of complex secret routes, churches, institutions and privately owned homes that aided runaway slaves on the dangerous journey north. Pennsylvania, the first free state north of the Mason-Dixon line, provided many entry points to freedom.

In Philadelphia, the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is the oldest AME church in the United States. A majestic towering stone structure, its stained windows act as a kaleidoscope, washing the sidewalk with rainbow hues. A significant stop on the Underground Railroad, many African-American organizations also began at Mother Bethel.

Nestled in south Chester County, Kennett Square lies just 38 miles west of Philadelphia. What today is a mere hour's journey by car took more than a day for escapees to accomplish on foot. Here you'll find numerous stations. Stop in at the Kennett Square Underground Railroad Center to learn about the near 16 sites in and around town where stationmasters housed slaves until they found their way to freedom.

The trail continues through northern counties and small towns like Reading, which itself had important stations and conductors to help usher the fugitives farther north. In the central part of Pennsylvania near Harrisburg, Across the Way Bed and Breakfast is a restored Victorian manor and was once an Underground Railroad safe house.

Farther west, in downtown Washington, the Lemoyne House is the Underground Railroad's first national historic landmark. John Julius LeMoyne, a practicing physician, was an active conductor on the famous trek.

Every August, downtown Blairsville in Indiana County hosts a re-enactment of the Rescue of 1858, in which a band of local citizens saved escapee Richard Newman from arrest by slave hunters. Blairsville is home to the Underground Railroad History Center, which has a downloadable map of a three-hour driving tour through sites in western Pennsylvania.

In Mercer, the borough has created separate walking and driving tours of local abolitionist-era sites. On the way out of town, take US Route 19 north was once a dirt path traveled by many freedom-seekers.

Every county in the state boasts at least one Underground Railroad stopover, documenting Pennsylvania's significant relationship with this poignant period in American history. No matter where you wander, you can relive these daring expeditions undertaken in the name of freedom.

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