"In the early part of concerted management slaves were hunted and tracked as far as Columbia [Pennsylvania]. There the pursuers lost all traces of them. The most scrutinizing inquiries, the most vigorous search, failed to educe any knowledge of them. Their pursuers seemed to have reached an abyss, beyond which they could not see, the depths of which they could not fathom, and in their bewilderment and discomforture they declared there must be an underground railroad somewhere. This gave origin to the term by which this secret passage from bondage to freedom was designated thereafter."
An excerpt from the book,
History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania,
written in 1883 by R.C. Smedley, M.D.
The Underground Railroad was a loose network of meeting places, secret routes, passageways and safehouses
used by slaves in the U.S. to escape slave-holding states. People in the state of Pennsylvania - both Black and White - worked together to offer shelter and aid to freedom seekers, often at their own personal peril.
By the 1830s, Lancaster County became an important area for those individuals on their journey to freedom. The county's location along the Mason-Dixon line, some of its residents' devotion to freedom (supported by religious convictions), and Lancaster’s transportation connections to other free northern states made it ideal as a pathway to freedom.
Some made their way to Columbia, others crossed the Susquehanna River into Southern Lancaster County at Peach Bottom, and still others followed a path that led them along the Octoraro Creek in the southeastern portion of the county.
Regardless the route, their destination was often Christiana and, eventually, Philadelphia, New England, or Canada. However, many stayed in Lancaster and established families, some of which still exist today.
Columbia was the western terminus of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, established in 1834 as the first regularly-operating railroad in the country and became a major stopping point for the Underground Railroad.
William Whipper and Stephen Smith, two freed black men who became successful lumber merchants in Columbia, built false walls into box cars in which slaves could hide and travel to Philadelphia.