The 70-mile segment of operating passenger railroad line between Philadelphia and the City of Lancaster, PA was part of the original, 80-mile Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, one of the earliest railroad rights of way in the nation, beginning operations in 1834. This pioneering railroad was the eastern-most segment of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s statewide, 390-mile-long Main Line of Public Works. By the late 1830s, this same eastern segment also became one of the most secretive and expeditious transportation corridors for formerly enslaved people to reach freedom in the care of the Vigilance Committee in the City of Philadelphia. African American entrepreneurs William Whipper and Stephen Smith of Columbia owned and operated railroad box cars which were routinely used to transport freight from their successful businesses to and from Philadelphia. Some of these box cars, according to Whipper and other credible sources, were “peculiarly constructed with hidden compartments for carrying freight belonging to the Underground Railroad.” One account states that no freedom seekers were ever detected using this transport system. Columbia’s burgeoning industrial riverfront on the Susquehanna provided employment for large numbers of African Americans as early as circa 1820. This community emerged as a magnet for freedom seekers and humanitarians supporting the anti-slavery cause. Slave catchers were also a constant threat during these years. One abolitionist, William Wright, a Quaker, is widely credited with organizing the system of overland transport of freedom seekers from one Friends’ family home or farm to another, a distance of about 10 miles apart, or the distance one could travel overnight by foot or wagon. Together, these factors support the popular anecdotal notion of Columbia as one of the unique places where the movement emerged that became known as the Underground Railroad.
Visitor Information: Currently open to public.
Location: 2955 Market St, 30th Street Station, Philadelphia, 19104
National Park Unit: No
Ownership: National Railroad Passenger Corporation
Location Type: Site
UGRR Operatives: William Wright