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What were safe houses in the Underground Railroad called?

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by African American slaves to escape into free states and Canada in the early to mid-1800s. The safe houses, also known as stations or depots, were an integral part of the Underground Railroad, providing refuge for runaway slaves as they made their journey north to freedom. But what were these safe houses actually called?

Other Names for Safe Houses

Safe houses in the Underground Railroad went by many different names, including:


One of the most common terms used was “stations.” This referred to the fact that the safe houses were like stops or stations along the Underground Railroad routes. Some specific examples of stations include:

– Lemuel Haynes House in Granville, New York
– John Rankin House in Ripley, Ohio
– Levi and Catherine Coffin House in Fountain City, Indiana


Another frequent name for safe houses was “depots.” This played on the analogy of the Underground Railroad being like a rail transportation system for escaping slaves. Depots were stops where passengers could rest and take refuge. Some well-known depots included:

– William Still House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
– John Hunn Farm in Camden, Delaware
– Plympton House in Niagara Falls, New York


Safe houses were also commonly referred to as “refuges.” This emphasized their role in providing shelter and protection for runaway slaves. Some specific refuges were:

– Josiah Henson House in Dresden, Ontario, Canada
– Daniel Drayton House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
– Peter Mott House in Lawnside, New Jersey


“Rests” was another term used for safe houses. The name signified that they offered runaway slaves a place to safely rest and gather strength for the next leg of their journey. Examples of known rests include:

– Jacob Bigelow House in Worcester, Massachusetts
– Alexander Ross House in Canadaigua, New York
– John Freeman Walls Historic Site in Florida


Some Underground Railroad safe houses posed as taverns along major routes of escape. These tavern houses covertly sheltered runaways but appeared as regular public houses to avoid suspicion. Some included:

– Bushnell’s Tavern in Madison, Ohio
– Valentine Nicholson House in Chester County, Pennsylvania
– Black Horse Tavern in Waynesville, Ohio

Code Names and Secret Languages

In addition to these common terms, Underground Railroad operators also used code names and secret languages to conceal the identity and purpose of safe houses:


– “Canaan”: Canada, the final destination
– “Heaven” or “The Promised Land”: Canada
– “Moses”: Harriet Tubman, a famous conductor
– “Shepherd”: Someone who guided escaping slaves
– “Stockholder”: Someone who donated money, food, or clothes


– Lanterns in windows: Safe house for the night
– 5 circles: Caution or unsafe place
– Bear paw: Follow this trail to find the safe house
– Log Cabin: Safe house
– Pine Tree: Go north towards free states


– “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”: Signal to prepare for escape
– “Wade in the Water”: Warn of slave catchers nearby
– “Steal Away”: Announce an upcoming escape plan

This secrecy and code language allowed the Underground Railroad to operate clandestinely, avoiding detection from slave catchers and law enforcement. Even runaways arriving at safe houses may not have known the identity of the homeowner or conductor if codenames were used.

Responsibilities of Safe House Operators

Operating a safe house along the Underground Railroad was extremely risky and illegal. But many abolitionists were committed to the cause of freedom and took on the following responsibilities:

Hiding Spaces

Safe house operators needed to construct discreet hiding places in their homes, usually linked by trapdoors and tunnels. Attics, basements, hidden rooms, and crawlspaces under floors were common spots. These spaces could harbor runaways if slave catchers came searching.

Providing Food and Supplies

Feeding and clothing escapees were among the most basic but vital jobs of safe house keepers. Food, water, blankets, shoes, and disguises helped hide and sustain runaways. Some operators planted extra vegetable gardens for this purpose.


To keep escape routes open, operators maintained contact with other abolitionists along the Underground Railroad. They shared information about dangerous areas, new routes, and how many fugitives they could shelter.


All these activities cost money. Many conductors were unable to fund operations alone. They solicited donations from northern abolition groups and anti-slavery supporters.

Guiding Travel

Some operators personally accompanied and guided fugitives on difficult or unfamiliar parts of their journey. They arranged transportation and lodging along the path north.

Keeping Secrecy

Most importantly, safe house keepers had to maintain strict secrecy around their activities, only trusting other members of the Underground Railroad. Loose lips endangered both escapees and operators.

Prominent Figures who Sheltered Escapees

Many everyday northern citizens—both Black and white—served as station masters and safe house operators along the Underground Railroad. But some of the most prominent figures in the abolition movement also famously sheltered fugitive slaves:

Frederick Douglass

Former slave and famed author, Douglass hid dozens of escapees over the years at his home in Rochester, New York. His prominence offered some protection against reprisals.

Harriet Tubman

The most famous Underground Railroad conductor, Tubman utilized safe houses during her many brave missions to bring slaves north to freedom. Her parents’ home served as a safe house in Poplar Neck, Maryland.

David Ruggles

A Black abolitionist based in New York City, Ruggles helped around 600 escapees with shelter and transportation through the Vigilance Committee.

Martha Coffin Wright

A Quaker woman who hosted fugitives in her New York home. She was a founding member of the bi-racial Anti-Slavery Society of Auburn.

Levi and Catherine Coffin

This Indiana Quaker couple aided over 3,000 runaway slaves over 20 years. Their Ohio home had a secret second story built to shelter escapees.

John Rankin

A Presbyterian minister in Ohio, Rankin turned his Ohio house into a busy station on the Underground Railroad, granting refuge to slaves crossing the Ohio River.

Role of Churches and Other Institutions

Churches, schools, businesses, and other community organizations also provided sanctuary to escaping slaves:


– Anti-slavery congregations hid fugitives in church basements, belfries, and hidden rooms.
– Escape routes were concealed in covered church wagons for transporting runaways.
– Examples: First Congregational Church (Detroit), Wesleyan Chapel (Cincinnati)


– abolitionist schools/academies operated by Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians sheltered students in transit
– One famous site: Eleutherian College in Indiana


– Anti-slavery businessmen covertly employed and housed slaves in their mills, tailor shops, warehouses, etc.
– One example: James Fowle’s cigar factory in Flushing, Ohio


– Barns and stables provided temporary shelter for fugitives in transit between fixed stations
– Loose floorboards and haylofts were used to hide escapees as needed

Geographical Distribution

Safe houses were located across the northern United States, especially in border states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. But the highest concentration was found in these key areas:

New England

Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine had networks of stations through abolitionist towns, churches, and colleges in the region.

New York and Pennsylvania

Stations in New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany helped slaves escaping from the mid-Atlantic and southern states. Pennsylvania had busy depots in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and along the Susquehanna River.

Ohio and Indiana

The Ohio River was a major crossing point from slave states, so stations flourished in Ohio’s river towns. From there, escapees traveled north through Ohio or Indiana towards Lake Erie and Canada.

Iowa and Illinois

As these states borders the slave state of Missouri, they contained refuges to receive escapees crossing the Mississippi River from Missouri.


The final destination, Canada was dotted with safe houses in places like Ontario,Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, especially after 1850 due to the Fugitive Slave Act.

Key Safe Houses in Operation

While it’s impossible to compile a complete list, some of the most important known Underground Railroad safe houses include:

Name Location Background
Levi and Catherine Coffin House Fountain City, Indiana Home of famous Quaker couple who aided over 3,000 escapees. Featured hiding places under steps and wagon shed.
John Rankin House Ripley, Ohio Presbyterian minister turned his Ohio River home into a busy Underground Railroad station starting in the 1820s.
William Still House Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Black abolitionist William Still coordinated the Vigilance Committee from his Philadelphia office and home, sheltering hundreds of fugitives.
Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence Albany, New York Home of Underground Railroad activists with hiding places under the eaves and in the barn. Over 1,000 escapees aided.
John Hunn Farm Camden, Delaware Farmhouse owned by John Hunn, a Quaker conductor. Tunnelsconnected the main house to the barn and springhouse.
Daniel Drayton House Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Drayton sheltered slaves in his Philadelphia home after masterminding the Pearl escape in 1848.

Conditions at Safe Houses

Conditions and accommodations varied substantially between safe houses. Some operators had more means than others. But general amenities runaways could expect included:

– Spartan sleeping quarters, often just a spot in the attic or basement
– Homemade food, including vegetables, bread, eggs, and fruit when available
– Hand-me-down clothing and shoes
– Crude washing and bathing facilities
– Rudimentary medical care for injuries, which were common among fugitives
– Scripture readings and hymn singing at some stops

Stays were generally brief—just a single night or a few days at most. The constant flow of escapees made permanent lodging impossible. Households suffered from the strain of harboring so many visitors. But operators accepted these sacrifices in service of a higher calling.

Secrecy Measures

To avoid detection, safe house proprietors followed strict secrecy rules:

– Admitting runaways only at night under cover of darkness
– Using discreet signals like lanterns in windows or special knocks
– Blindfolding or hiding faces of escapees so identities remained unknown
– Never divulging information about their activities even to family
– Maintaining separate entrances, tunnels, and hiding places

Operators constantly feared infiltrators and informants. Patrollers often searched for signs like extra food or an overworked kitchen. Children had to be trained not to speak freely. The stakes were life and death, so secrecy was paramount.

Dangers and Risks

The decision to operate a safe house was extremely risky:

Legal Peril

The Fugitive Slave Acts made harboring slaves a federal crime with severe penalties. Operators faced fines of $1,000 ($30,000 today) as well as prison time.

Physical Harm

If found out, operators also risked being targeted for beatings, arson, and other violence by pro-slavery mobs. Armed slave catchers also posed threats.

Financial Hardship

The costs of feeding and sheltering escapees caused major financial strain. Some operators even jeopardized their livelihoods.

But remarkably, there are very few known cases of Underground Railroad safe house keepers being caught or prosecuted. Their sacrificial bravery changed the fates of thousands of freedom seekers.

The End of the Line

For fugitive slaves, reaching the sanctuary of a safe house represented a huge landmark on their treacherous journey to freedom. As one escaping woman recalled upon arriving at a Pennsylvania station:

“When I found I had got entirely away from the hunters, I burst out into a hymn of thanksgiving, and felt as if my heart was more than full.” (Still, 1872)

Though far from their final destination in the north, these way stations gave weary and frightened runaways hope, rest, and encouragement to press onward. The Underground Railroad could not have operated without these havens amidst the treacherous landscape facing escapees from bondage. Their courageous keepers deservedly became heroes of the antislavery cause.


Safe houses were vital landmarks along the Underground Railroad. Though they went by various code names like stations, depots, and refuges, their purpose was clear—provide refuge and survival to freedom seekers on their clandestine journey to liberation in the north. Despite facing immense risks from the law and pro-slavery forces, the keepers of these safe houses exemplified moral courage and self-sacrifice. They literally kept the Underground Railroad running and made this country live up to its founding ideals of freedom and equality.