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Underground Railroad

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Maybe you've been Blessed with Suck. Or maybe you were simply Made a Slave or found yourself Trapped Behind Enemy Lines. You Can Run, but You Can't Hide. Unless these folks help you. A Sub-Trope of La Résistance, the Underground Railroad is the group of people who work in secret to help you escape to freedom. Usually it is not actually underground, or even necessarily a railroad, though there is no particular reason it couldn't be.

For modern American Superhero stories, the famous slave escape network is the perfect way to show the heroes come from an honored history of heroism as they learn they have ancestors who risked everything joining the organization, and also left secret passages and hideouts to use now.

See also Restricted Rescue Operation. The "final stop" on one of these is often an Outcast Refuge where the escapees can live in (relative) peace. Typically motivated by Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!, although some may be recruited by Screw the Rules, I Have Money!.


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    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • Double Agent Vader has a couple of examples:
    • The Tatooine freedom trail, a secret network that helps escaped slaves. Shmi Skywalker was a member, as was Beru Whitesun. Anakin gives it what assistance he can, such as slipping it a scanner to detect slave implants, of a design that can be replicated with materials slaves on Tatooine are likely to be able to get their hands on.
    • Anakin's work undermining the Empire leads to him reprogramming several droids to give them self-determination, partly so he can have helpers and partly because his heritage gives him sympathy with anybody who is trapped in a life of forced obedience, and this snowballs into him and the droids setting up a droid freedom trail on the Tatooine model, for droids whose cover is at risk or who use their self-determination to determine that dangerous undercover work is not really their thing, thanks all the same.
  • Heretic Pride, by the same author as Double Agent Vader, also has a version of the Tatooine freedom trail, which Padme gets involved with after she goes back to Tatooine to free Shmi. She offers monetary support, and helps set up places offworld for slaves to escape to, including establishing Naboo as a place where escaped slaves are welcomed as refugees.
  • In the Slavequestria portion of The MLP Loops, it's mentioned that the in-Loop version of Pinkie Pie was running the Underground Railroad into Griffon Territory before the group awoke in that loop.
  • Perilous Journey: The Friends of Lily network was created by Lily to get muggle-borns and purebloods viewed as blood traitors in Voldemort's eyes out of the continent. Harry and Ginny use this when Umbridge and everyone onboard the Knight Bus is killed by Voldemort and Bellatrix and the two are framed for it, while Dumbledore had the Fidelius charm recast in a bid to get Harry and Ginny back to Hogwarts, unaware that it would've convinced the two that they were marked for death by the side that was supposed to help them.
  • In The Three Kings: Hunt, the mages are organizing one of these in order to get any mages that they find to safety
  • Vow of Nudity: The Silver Lining is a guild dedicated to freeing slaves from the Genasi Empire. If Haara (a former slave herself) is not explicitly working for them in a given story, she usually sends them any money or treasure she earned during an adventure.

    Films — Animated 
  • In 101 Dalmatians, the Twilight Bark networks of dogs and other animals who help the dalmatians escape Cruella.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter features the historic Underground Railroad in the ending. It turns out that the train that was being used to deliver the silver weapons to the front lines to defeat the Confederate vampires was a decoy; the silver was actually being delivered on foot by the Underground Railroad, not a literal railroad.
  • In Batman Begins, a Historical In-Joke reference to the Civil War Underground Railroad is made when Bruce and Alfred are exploring the Batcave.
  • Not Without My Daughter: The protagonist and her daughter use such an organization to escape Iran.
  • The Philadelphia Experiment II: The American Underground has a route to help Americans (who are basically slaves of the Nazis) escape to safety in Alaska, which is apparently not under the Nazis' control.

  • The actual American Underground Railroad appears in Chance And Choices Adventures. They help the Williams family escape when they're being pursued by Judge Daniel Hall for violation of anti-miscegenation laws, and it's mentioned that they also helped another family who were being hunted for the same thing.
  • Chocoholic Mysteries: Snowman Murders reveals that Lee's aunt Nettie, along with Sarajane Harding and George Jenkins, is involved in one of these. But instead of slaves, it helps battered women escape from physical abusers. Cupid Killings has one of these battered women take a job at TenHuis Chocolade, but Lee soon finds that a private detective (who soon becomes the book's murder victim) is on her trail. It ultimately turns out that the woman was faking her status, and had been just using the group as part of her own scheme.
  • Greatwinter Trilogy: Subverted in Eyes of the Calculor. After an electro-magnetic pulse stops technology, the government forcibly conscripts anyone capable of operating the Calculor, a human-powered computer. An underground railroad is formed, but it turns out to be run by the secret police to scoop up all those who escaped the net — this is only revealed after another agency arrests everyone in the mistaken belief that it's a real underground railway.
  • In The Handmaid's Tale, Mayday operates an underground railroad for getting people (mostly the persecuted women) from Gilead to Canada.
  • In It Can't Happen Here, American dissidents flee Windrip's regime by traveling to Canada via an underground railroad, including Doremus after he escapes the Trianon camp.
  • The Jack Reacher book Nothing to Lose has a subplot where several locals are transporting people who deserted from the army for religious reasons away from the authorities.
  • Matthew Hawkwood: In Rapscallion, Hawkwood has to infiltrate and shut down an underground railroad that is smuggling escaped French POWs out of England.
  • Inverted in Mr. Standfast — the Untergrundbahn is a German operation to kidnap and imprison people who might be a danger to the German war effort.
  • The Murderbot Diaries: The murder mystery in ''Fugitive Telemetry' turns out to be related to an operation to smuggle Asteroid Miners trapped in Indentured Servitude. They've been there so long it's actually their children and grandchildren who are being smuggled.
  • Nina Tanleven: The trope-naming real life Underground Railroad is discussed in The Ghost Wore Gray, and Captain Gray had to use a similar method in order to get from South Carolina to New York so he could meet with a Canadian contact. He winds up having to hide in a room that was part of the actual Underground Railroad to avoid his enemies at a few points.
  • Number the Stars is a work of historical fiction set during World War II, about the Real Life efforts by Danes in Nazi occupied Denmark to smuggle Jews into neutral Sweden.
  • The Orphan Train Adventures: In A Family Apart, Frances overhears a conversation about the Underground Railroad. Later, it turns out that her new foster family is involved, and she even brings a couple of runaway slaves to the next farm on the route.
  • In the Resistance trilogy by Clive Egleton, La Résistance to the Soviet-occupied Britain have networks to move people around, but it's often subverted. On one occasion the container truck used for people smuggling is actually a Gas Chamber used to get rid of people the Resistance would rather not have running free. In the final novel the protagonist is promised passage to the sea where an American nuclear submarine is waiting to pick him up. His girlfriend regards this as a fairytale to make him do One Last Job, but they are both killed before we find out if it's genuine.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel is an early literary example, smuggling French bluebloods from the clutches of the revolutionaries and the embrace of Madam Guillotine.
  • In Small Change, several groups focus on getting Jews and other undesirables out of fascist Europe. When Carmichael is blackmailed into becoming the head of the Watch, a British gestapo, he and a few trustworthy allies found the Inner Watch and use their resources and feared reputation to secretly get innocents to safety.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • Coruscant Nights: Coruscant's Whiplash resistance movement forms shortly after Order 66 to smuggle dissident politicians, civilian Jedi Temple employees, and the odd surviving Jedi farther away from the planets carrying out the Empire's purges.
    • New Jedi Order: One is developed to help Jedi evade the various invaders, sympathizers, and bounty hunters who want to capture them. The "Great River" is later converted into a branch of the Insiders and later the Ryn Network, which both have a more active intelligence role.
    • Republic Commando Series: Nyreen Vollen is a freight hauler who helps deserting Clone Troopers run away from the war. After the war, she also helps smuggle a few Jedi away from those who want them dead. An earlier Legends story, "Salvaged" from Clone Wars Adventures mentions that lots of freight haulers are smuggling surviving Jedi (particularly children) away from the Empire's reach right after Order 66.
  • The Underground Railroad re-imagines the American Civil War-era underground railroad as an actual railroad, underground, that helps slaves escape.
  • The Yankee Plague: In an interesting (yet historically accurate) flipping of the usual scenario, the slaves are the ones conducting the Underground Railroad: hiding, sheltering, and guiding escaped Union prisoners of war headed back to their own lines. Various white unionists, deserters and their families, and Good Samaritan's also help in this informal network, out of either sympathy for the prisoners and their cause or out of a pragmatic desire to bring down the Confederate government faster.
  • In Yours Truly, it's revealed that Truly Lovejoy helped black slaves escape to Canada as part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Her house had a hiding place for slaves under the stairs that lead to a secret tunnel, and one of the slaves she helped escape to freedom was an ancestor of the Freeman Family.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5:
    • There is a so-called Telepath Underground Railroad, which helps telepaths escape from the Psi-Corps. From time to time, the Psi-Cops, elite Psi-Corps agents who are also powerful telepaths, will attempt to break the Railroad in order to capture the rogue telepaths. The Railroad is used again later on as a recruiting network for telepaths to help the Army of Light fight the Shadows.
    • Later on, other operations develop to help Narn civilians escape captivity after their star nation falls under a brutal occupation by the Centauri Republic. One of the notables in this movement is Vir Cotto, using his credentials as Londo's aide and later Ambassador to Minbar under the name "Abrahamo Lincolni".
  • Criminal Minds: An underground railroad that helped battered spouses escape their abusive husbands was central to the plot (read: was the target of the Serial Killer of the Week, who was a Cold Sniper hired by one of said spouses and was killing his way to the escaped wife) of the episode "Sniper, Sniped".
  • In Degrassi: The Next Generation, Jimmy mentions that one of his ancestors had come to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
  • The F.B.I.: In "Special Delivery", Erskine is tracking a fugitive when he learns of an underground railroad smuggling wanted criminals from the west coast of the US to South America. He goes undercover as a criminal on the run to both track the fugitive and shut down the railroad.
  • In Firefly and Serenity (2005), Simon was helped in his rescue of his sister from a government lab by some unspecified co-conspirators who apparently are these.
  • Played for Laughs in the Friends episode "The One with the Two Parties": Phoebe smuggles people from Monica's boring party to Joey and Chandler's fun party across the hall, acting like she's freeing them from one of the places mentioned in the Real Life section below.
    Party Guest: What about my friend Victor?
    Phoebe: No, only the three of you, any more than that and she'll get suspicious.
    Party Guest: All right, let me just get my coat.
    Phoebe: There isn't time! You must leave everything! They'll take care of you next door.
    Party Guest: Is it true they have beer?
    Phoebe: Everything you've heard is true.
  • In Hogan's Heroes, the title characters and the French Resistance helped escaping Allied P.O.W.s reach England.
  • Kingdom Adventure: It's heavily implied that The Prince has one of these set up for lumans who escape Pitts' custody. Pitts' favorite form of execution is to have his prisoners Fed to the Beast, but the "beast" is actually a vegetarian with human-level intelligence, and he's one of the good guys, to boot, so obviously, he doesn't eat the victims, and just after a prisoner gets dumped into the pit, a friend of his lets them go and directs them to another luman. This route of escape keeps the victims alive, and it keeps Pitts from catching on to any of this.
  • In one episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the detectives come across a network of women who help battered wives escape from their abusers and start a new life far away where they can't be found. Similar to the real Underground Railroad, each person only knows the next "stop". We then get a montage of Stabler moving through the chain trying to find the woman.
    Elliot Stabler: What is this, some kind of DV Underground Railroad?
    Woman: You could call it that.
  • Murder, She Wrote: Investigating a murder attributed to the slave of a distant relative, Mrs. Fletcher found that the victim was a "Station Master" on the Underground Railroad, and was murdered by his father-in-law.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi reveals that an organisation known as the Path formed to help Jedi and non-Jedi Force users to evade being caught by The Empire. Members include surviving Jedi (such as Quinlan Vos), people with friendly ties to the Jedi, people with Force-sensitive loved ones, and at least one Imperial Officer who became disillusioned with the new regime. They run a network of saferooms and hidden tunnels where they can move without being caught by Stormtroopers.
  • Quantum Leap: In "The Leap Between the States", Sam leaps into his own great-grandfather, a Union officer in The American Civil War, and comes across a southern belle and her seemingly devoted slave who are secretly helping other slaves escape north.
  • Secret Army is about Lifeline, a Belgian resistance network which returns Allied airmen to Britain during World War II.
  • Star Trek: Voyager: In the episode "Counterpoint", Voyager helps a group of telepathic refugees on the last stage of an established escape route through the Devore Imperium. Captain Janeway ends up in a romantic tryst with the Devore officer charged with disrupting the route. He turns out to be stringing Janeway along so he can shut down the route, but fortunately, Janeway anticipates this.
  • Underground is about a group of Georgia slaves making a 600-mile journey to freedom with the help of the Underground Railroad.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Fantasy Games Unlimited's Psi World adventure Underground Railroad, the Free State operates, with the aid of a psionic underground in the Confederacy, a series of escape routes for psis who wish to get out of the repressive police state of the Confederacy.
  • In the Shadowrun supplement Aztlan, the Aztlan Freedom League helps refugees from Aztlan escape to the Confederated American States.

    Video Games 
  • Shows up twice in Kara's route in Detroit: Become Human.
    • The first one she comes across, run by Zlatko, is actually a trap. He promises deviant androids a chance at freedom just to lure them in to have their memories reset so he can sell them. And those are the lucky ones compared to what he does to the ones he keeps.
    • The second one, run by Rose and Adam is the real thing. Adam is scared of what will happen if the authorities find out and doesn't understand why they have to put themselves at risk for a bunch of machines, but Rose goes out of her way to help androids in need, seeing them as people in the same exact situation their ancestors were in.
  • Dragon Age:
    • There are a couple of organizations like these that help mages escape the church-backed Mutant Draft Board. Origins has a series of sidequests where you can either support or oppose the Mages' Collective, a group of Ferelden apostates.
    • The Kirkwall Circle in Dragon Age II is the most abusive one out there, so the presence of a "Mage Underground" should come as no surprise. There's even a sidequest called "Underground Railroad". By act 3, the increasingly-paranoid Meredith has dismantled it, which doesn't do much for Anders' mental state.
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind has the Twin Lamps, who serve as one to free slaves and help them return to their homelands. Given that slavery is legal in Morrowind, they need to be discreet.
  • Fallout 3 takes the Underground Railroad and runs with it in one of the sidequests, essentially by combining it with the plot of Blade Runner and having the Lone Wanderer either assist in protecting an escaped android, or help capture him and return him to his creators in Massachusetts. They are expanded on in Fallout 4, in which they're one of the factions you can side with.
  • Half-Life 2: The human resistance run a network of safehouses and supply caches to help people escape City 17, with the help of resistance agents planted in Civil Protection. When the manhunt for Gordon Freeman is set off, much of the network ends up being broken by the Combine, although the resistance group that was running the network manages to survive and fight on.
  • Geralt learns some ways into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that two of the four crime lords of Novigrad are helping shelter the city's mages in the wake of Redania and the Eternal Fire's latest witch-burning craze. When the Witch Hunters clamp down and the pogroms proceed in full, they seek Geralt's help in getting them out of the city and to Kovir. Being crime lords, they're more pragmatic than heroic, having traded their help in exchange for money and extensive magical favors.

    Web Videos 
  • Hermitcraft: A more literal example pops up during Grian's 42nd episode of Season 7, where he begins to build one to each and every shop in the district.

    Western Animation 
  • Played with in Archer when Cheryl explains how one of her insane ancestors bankrupted himself building numerous tunnels underneath the Tunt Mansion in an effort to find the Underground Railroad, capture runaway slaves, and sell them back to their owners. Not only did he think it was an actual railroad, but he built these tunnels in 1890.
  • The Simpsons: "The Color Yellow" reveals that the Simpsons had an ancestor who was a part of this. Bart suggests that it should've been called "Aboveground Normalroad". To be more precise, a fugitive slave and a woman who helped him are ancestors of the Simpsons.

    Real Life 
  • The Trope Namer is the Underground Railroad that existed in the United States before The American Civil War, which helped escaped slaves make their way north to safety. Some found refuge in the Northern states that were anti-slavery, but some ended up fleeing all the way to Canada to avoid slave extradition laws that required escaped slaves to be arrested and returned to their owners (especially following the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and later Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court which enhanced efforts at hunting down escaped slaves). Unfortunately, they also had the Reverse Underground Railroad, where free black people were enslaved unlawfully, often by being lured into a part of the US which allowed slavery, along with being outright kidnapped from a free state or territory then smuggled off to be sold illegally. 12 Years a Slave, which follows a free black man from New York kidnapped and sold in Louisiana, is about this.
  • During World War II, airmen from the Allied Powers who were shot down over Occupied Europe would often find themselves being hidden and protected by members of various resistance groups, who would try to smuggle them back to England or to a neutral country such as Switzerland or Sweden.
    • Counter-intuitively, the easiest path back to England was not across the English Channel, but rather a lengthy and difficult trip through Occupied France, Vichy France, and neutral Spain to the Mediterranean, due to the density of German defenses and patrols along the French coastline.
    • Norway had its own network, usually smuggling refugees over the border (and also many Jews) to neutral Sweden — and also back again, as the resistance network planned their moves in Sweden, smuggling their people back in to do their job. Woe for the ones getting caught on the way. The "railroad" usually went through uncharted forest terrain where the resistance knew the Germans were not actually looking. Another route went by fishing boats to the British isles (an even more daring attempt as you had to break the German Submarine lines).
    • Denmark had a particularly interesting version of a railroad. When the German war machine took over Denmark early in the war, loads of Danish gentiles helped to drive the country's Jews to the coast, where they would be shipped to Sweden for protection. This move was so unanimous that, within two weeks, 99% of all Jews in Denmark had been moved out of the country, making it one of the shortest-living and most effective underground railroads in European history. It was the most extensive rescue of Jews from the Holocaust, with Denmark having the lowest number of Jewish people lost in its population (a mere 700 or so) among all European countries. This was helped by the fact Denmark had almost no antisemitism (aside from a few far rightists, including the Danish Nazis, who were naturally Les Collaborateurs), so the entire government aided the rescue (including the king, who declared he'd wear the yellow star if his Jewish subjects were made to).
  • And immediately after WWII, the remnants of the Nazi leadership created ODESSA (Organisation Der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen; or, Organization of Former SS-Members) and the San Girolamo ratline to smuggle Nazi politicians and officers—and whatever stolen treasure that they can get their grubby hands on in short notice—to Argentina.
  • There were also the British who smuggled thousands of Jews (children especially) out of Europe and to England before and during WWII. This was presented as the work of Hallam in Upstairs Downstairs.
  • The Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine worked to smuggle in as many Jewish refugees and immigrants as they could, against British restrictions (unfortunately enacted just before WWII, and not repealed afterwards). This clandestine movement was known as Aliyah Bet.
  • There's currently an underground railroad which smuggles defectors out of North Korea. The usual route is through the northern border with China, bribing border guards along the way. Once in China, North Korean defectors have to keep a low profile since China is friends with North Korea and the Chinese government will send back any defectors it finds. However, it's much easier to get out of China than North Korea, so from there they can travel to whatever country they want. Under Kim Jong Un's rule, the border with China has been strengthened, which has slowed the flow of defectors.
    • Cracked wrote an article after interviewing someone who got out. Apparently, they had to go all the way to Vietnam before it was safe to go to South Korea.
    • According to Nothing to Envy an alternate route is to head for the Mongolian border upon reaching China. You'll still get deported, but Mongolia deports all Koreans entering illegally to South Korea.