Lesson Plan

The Underground Railroad at the C&O Canal

Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.


This program is designed for students to evaluate and explain in their own words what freedom means to them using first person accounts, pictures, letters and props they can touch. They should be able to explain freedom in a written letter about the process it takes to gain freedom as well as a drawing exercise to explain freedom through a quilt.


An excerpt of a memoir written by James Curry, an African American man who escaped slavery in North Carolina and traveled along the C&O Canal in search of freedom.

Download James Curry Excerpt

A worksheet for students to complete the Freedom Quilt activity.

Download Freedom Quilt Worksheet

Lesson Hook/Preview

Students will be learning about slavery, the Civil War, the Underground Railroad, the C&O Canal, and how all of these topics intersect. They will learn about the concept of freedom, and discuss symbolism for freedom.


  1. Rangers will give a brief history of African American involvement on the C&O Canal.
    • The C&O Canal began as a dream of passage to Western wealth. Operating for nearly 100 years the canal was a lifeline for communities along the Potomac River as coal, lumber and agricultural products floated down the waterway to market. It ran in the 19th and early 20th centuries and goes from Georgetown in DC to Cumberland Maryland for 184.5 miles. It is called C&O because it was intended to go all the way to the Ohio River but they stopped in Cumberland because it cost more money and took more time than they expected. Today it endures as a pathway for discovering historical, natural and recreational treasures!
    • The C&O canal began construction in 1828 and completed in 1850. During that time the canal was mostly built by Irish immigrants and indentured servants but some enslaved people did help build the canal. We know this from letters for payment of services and 12 newspaper advertisements (show students the images). So African Americans were involved in the canal by helping build it and they also ran away along it as part of the Underground Railroad (which you will learn more about today). Eventually, there were African American boat captains and workers who restored and rebuilt the canal in the 1930s and 40s. But for now, we are going to focus on the time period of 1830s, 40s and 50s.
    • Show students pictures of African Americans on the canal and the canal itself
  2. Ask what bodies of water the C&O Canal was intended to connect.
    1. Make sure students understand that the Ohio river is near Pittsburgh and it was intended to connect DC and Pittsburgh
  3. Gauge background knowledge with the students and clear up the timeline with them.
    • Discuss the difference between enslaved and indentured people
    • Ask students what was happening during 1830-50 and what happened after
    • Is this before the Civil War? What was the Civil War? Who fought? What were they fighting for?
  4. Introduce James Curry (man born in slavery in the south whose father was a free man, he always dreamed of freedom in his life and eventually he escaped)
  5. Teacher or ranger will read the excerpt from the narrative of James Curry to help students have an understanding of what slavery was like and why someone would long for freedom (excerpt below). As they read, students will follow along with their own copy.
  6. Teachers will ask the students to describe the concept of freedom if they know what it means already. As students suggest their ideas, the teacher will write them down on a board for the class to see (alternatively students could write their answer on a post it note then put them up). Once the teacher has made sure that the students understand the difference between freedom and enslavement, the teacher will ask the students what they would do if they had no freedom.
  7. Teacher will explain that enslaved people often ran away but were easily caught and severely punished which caused the Underground Railroad to be established.
  8. Show children maps of the C&O canal and a geographic of the Potomac river highlighted for the length the canal is next to it and ask them why would the location for the canal have been important to the men and women seeking freedom? If they were able to get to the end of the towpath, what would be waiting there for them?
  9. Now children plan their own escape on the C&O canal on the worksheet “escaping from slavery on the C&O canal: your escape plan” (includes reading excerpt #2 from James Curry’s narrative and using props in the materials section)
  10. Tell students that their plans are great and they have made it to freedom. If you have time, give the students 15 minutes to write a letter to the friends and family that they had to leave behind about how they are coming back for them and telling them about their experience on the Underground Railroad and canal based on the worksheet
  11. If time: freedom quilt activity
    • Explain that sometimes to facilitate the underground railroad slaves made quilts that had directions on where to go and how to escape (show images)
    • Teachers will have the students brainstorm together what symbols might have been on freedom quilts that meant freedom. Teachers will show the different designs used on Freedom Quilts and what they meant. (Really Good Stuff handout- which I can’t find)
    • Students will design a freedom quilt using the worksheet provided. Students will list what symbols they included on their quilt and what it means to them and runaway enslaved people.
    • If time, come back together and have students share out their design and what freedom means to them
  12. Teachers can assign “Civil War Dilemma” or “Underground Railroad Situations” as homework/ post activities.


Canal: a manmade waterway often used to move goods, people

Lock: a device for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways

Lockhouse: A house located on the canal next to the lock where the lock tender and his family lived

Lockkeeper: employee of C&O Canal, hired to operate the lift lock

Lock Key: a tool used on the canal to open and close the wicket paddles on the bottom of a lock door, allowing water to enter/exit the lock

Mule: hybrid animal of female horse and male donkey

Navigate: to travel by water

Towpath: a dirt path alongside a canal where mules would walk and tow canal boats

Transport: to carry something from one place to another

Civil War: a war in the United States fought from 1860-1865, fought between the North and the South over the issue of slavery

Slavery: when one person "owns" another person, like property

Underground Railroad: a secret network of houses and people who would help slaves escape from the South into freedom in Canada

Additional Resources

For additional resources, please contact our education team at cocanaleducation@nps.gov

Related Lessons or Education Materials

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Last updated: February 8, 2016