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The underground railroad had no cars or locomotives, nor any tracks that could be easily seen, and it didn’t burrow under the earth. It was utterly and necessarily silent, except perhaps for a low, lonesome whistle indistinguishable from a night bird’s call; but those who needed to, heard it loud and clear from the deepest South to the liberating border of Canada. The price of a ticket was nothing, but the cost of riding this train could mean your freedom, or even your life. This so-called railroad, a loosely organized and extremely secret network of free blacks and white sympathizers, transported hundreds, or more likely thousands, to a freedom they could not know in pre-Civil War America.
There are a very few written records that refer to the underground railroad and its courageous “conductors.” Yet the Underground Railroad is one of the most persistent stories from our past, demonstrating the strength of memory and an enduring aura that courage maintains.
In the early hours of a spring morning in 1855 several slaves made a dash for freedom. Led by Mary Meachum, a free woman of color, they boarded a skiff just above where the Merchants Bridge now spans the Mississippi. Crossing over to Illinois, they landed safely and were met by an abolitionist; but also on the riverbank the police and at least one slave owner awaited. Shots were fired, one of the bullets hitting the abolitionist who died a few days later. The fugitives escaped but were caught later that morning. Mary Meachum was arrested, accused of “enticing slaves out of the state.”
It is her name that was given the first location in Missouri recognized as a site on the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
Early on a spring morning – but not nearly so early as Mary Meachum and her friends – I walked along the Riverfront Trail that leads to the Freedom Crossing. I think I can pick out the spot where the little skiff waited. In the pastel sunlight the journey doesn’t seem frightening. But on that day in 1855 it was still dark, and every sound could have been a determined pursuer, gun and whip in hand.
I am not a fugitive slave. I can imagine the emotions churning in the mind and heart of those attempting to escape from slavery; but it is a feeble effort on my part. I can only stand here and gaze across this mighty river, this road to freedom that was so dangerous to take, marveling at the courage of those who stood here so many years ago.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society