Working on the Railroad: A Ticket to Freedom
Your phone rings. When you answer, an unfamiliar voice responds
tentatively, "Uh, hi. This is Marty Greene."
Bam! Your adrenaline kicks in. Your heart rate jumps. You're in the
underground - one more time.
You don't know who Marty Greene is, and if things work out right, you never
will. But when Marty calls - every time a different Marty calls -
you always know what to do. You give directions to a neutral rendezvous
point. You exchange enough information to assure recognition. Then you pick
up the latest fugitive to stop at your station on the underground railroad.
This time, Marty Greene might be a weary-looking laborer in his 40s. Last
time Marty was a determined young woman with two children. The time before
that, he was a 60-something intellectual, bewildered in a rough world he
never expected to see. No matter.
Marty stays with you for a night or two, gratefully eats your home-cooked
meals and rests from the road. You don't ask - and Marty never tells - his
personal story. He doesn't know your real name, and you never know his.
Soon, you drop him in some public location, where he calls the railroad's
"engineer." The engineer gives him the phone number of his next conductor,
and Marty is gone.
Eventually, you hope, the mysterious railroad will supply him with a new
identity so he can stop somewhere and establish a life, far from whatever
threw him into flight. But you never find out.
Like Marty, you know only the engineer. You don't know the other
conductors. You don't know the locations of any station but the one you
operate. You don't know what lies at the end of Marty's weary road. You
don't know anything except what you need to know.
But you do know you're helping someone toward freedom. You're part of the
underground railroad, a road as old as tyranny itself.
As long as there have been unjust laws, people have found escape routes
from them. They always have; they always will.
The mothers of Moses and Jesus had to smuggle their sons to safety to
preserve them from infanticidal edicts by tyrants. For the first 300 years
of Christianity, believers - outlaws all - were driven to seek refuge in
places like the Roman catacombs. Later, once various forms of Christianity
had received the sanction of governments, Catholics hid from vengeful
Protestants in "priest holes," while suspected pagans escaped rampaging
Catholic inquisitors - or died.
America has always had its undergrounds. Sam Adams and John Hancock were
smuggled out of Boston to safe houses just before the "shoot-out" at
Lexington and Concord with General Gage's firearms-confiscation force.
Later, in this land of the free, slaves ran into the unknown, into hardship
and sometimes into death, rather than submit to being property.
In the 20th century, mountaineers hid prohibition-spawned moonshiners from
the gun-toting "revenooers." Underground railroads helped fugitive Jews,
anti-Nazi Germans and downed pilots escape to safety across a ravaged
Europe, and sometimes all the way into America. During the Vietnam War,
college students sneaked draft resisters into Canada, while other far-flung
networks hid fugitive members of the Weather Underground and Black Panthers.
The need hasn't gone away. There are railroads in operation, here and now.
Some spirit away mothers with children alleged to be victims of sexual
abuse. Others shelter illegal refugees from foreign dictatorships and wars.
Another helps gay teens escape forced "cures" in mental institutions.
There's even a sort of aboveground underground that helps sick Canadians
escape Canada's rationed, state-run medical system for care in the United
There are small networks that hide fugitive members of the
"anti-government" movement. Some of these are tightly planned and
structured. Others appear spontaneously. They may consist of nothing more
than a desert trailer dweller offering a night's stay, a ride in a pickup
truck, and the name of a sympathetic cousin to a pair of media-hunted
Yes, undergrounds already exist. But here in America at the end of the
twentieth century, we ain't seen nothin' yet. What we are about to
see is an explosion of freedom undergrounds. Count on it. Tyranny,
injustice and unconscionable control over individual lives always lead to
Maybe you don't think we live in tyranny yet. Maybe those of us who fear
the jackboot in the door are a few years ahead in our perception. But the
fact is: every time a new law passes that prevents peaceable people from
living as they wish, without fear, tyranny grows. The need grows. The
Your day for needing an underground escape route may be different
than mine, or the man's down the block. But anybody who thinks America
isn't on the path to a vast underground railroad system just isn't paying
Who might end upon the run? Maybe you, if you refuse to turn over banned
guns. Maybe your best friend, if he decides to run rather than face a long
sentence for a victimless crime. Maybe your girlfriend if she doesn't want
her every move tracked in a federal database. Maybe your neighbor, if he's
lost his home because he filled in a "wetland" in his driveway. Maybe your
immigrant friend, who can't prove he's not a criminal after being found
with "too much" cash. Maybe your sister, if her religion forbids turning
her children over to the government health-care patrol. Maybe the guy who
puts out a political newsletter or broadcasts "anti-government" messages.
Maybe you and your neighbors, on the terrible day you have to become
guerrilla fighters or saboteurs rather then bend your knees one more time
Who'll build the railroads? That's also going to have to be you, and your
neighbors, and your family and friends. Maybe it's time to get ready
Laying the rails
But how? Where do you begin? In the worst case (nobody would recommend
this), you'd start when a friend in need showed up on your door. In a
circumstance like this, pity, rage or sheer necessity might move you to
want to get involved. But it's going to take much more than that to
sustain a railroad.
Brendan Maura  knows. He and his wife Kathy operated a station on one of America's underground railroads in the 1980s and early 90s. He says,
"Emotion is high-octane fuel and dissipates quickly. In the underground,
short-term excitement is soon followed by long-term nervous strain and
interference with the routine of one's normal life. For the long-haul
journey on the freedom road, a person needs to have resiliency of mind,
soul and spirit born of deep spiritual convictions, either secular or
religious. Without these, people are better off to accept the chains and
not mess around with resistance to tyranny."
Assuming you're ready for the long-haul, what next? He suggests, "The first
thing to do is make an inventory of acquaintances you trust. Bring up in
conversation, 'Isn't this a terrible thing? What would you do if...?' Do
this without ever telling them exactly what you have in mind. Later, you
might talk about the history of resistance. If that brings a light to their
eyes, you can broach the idea of how you and they might start such a
He lays out fundamental guidelines for building a freedom railroad:
- Each member of your original group must be willing to learn to be an
"engineer" - that is, an operator of a fully independent railroad with its
own network of routes and stations. "It's fine to work together as a
railroad for a short time to learn the ropes," Brendan says, "but it is
poor tactics to run an escape route where everyone knows everyone. Thus, any founding group may evolve into several independent railroad operations
or one of the original members may go inactive, only to pick up the
engineer's job in an emergency.
- Engineer training must include: methods for identifying acceptable
travelers; ways to protect identities of travelers and railroad workers;
knowledge of what makes good stationmasters and stations; routes and
transportation methods; covert communications; emergency backup plans;
legal ramifications; and general security measures. Every engineer should
especially learn countermeasures to minimize infiltration by bogus
refugees, who may be informants or agents provocateur.
- Each stationmaster, engineer or conductor must be prepared for failure.
"Sooner or later, if the fugitives sought by the tyrants are perceived to
be important enough, the government will take serious steps to round up not
only the fugitives, but those who have been helping them. In some cases,
those who have run resistance railroads have been dealt with far more
harshly than the fugitives. For example, in World War II, an escaping pilot
would only be sent to a POW camp; those who had helped him were summarily
executed in most cases."
- You should "judgment-proof" your assets as much as possible before
getting seriously involved. In other words, transfer ownership of major
assets to friends, family members or carefully structured trusts. This may
- but won't always - decrease your vulnerability to asset forfeiture, that
unconstitutional tactic so beloved of corrupt enforcers. You must remember
that legislation increasingly authorizes confiscation of assets used in
"crimes," even if the person who owns the asset has no knowledge of the
allegedly criminal activities. You simply cannot eliminate every risk.
- Establish a logistical supply system. Friends who can't participate
actively might nevertheless be able to provide food, clothing, money,
medical aid or other necessities.
- You must have someone who can engineer the "paper trip" - that is,
obtain or create false ID documents for the refugee. This person must be as
well protected as anyone within the system. The job of getting ID is about
to become more difficult than ever (More about that later.), but it is also
more vital than ever.
- The traveler must keep moving. No matter how weary she is, no matter how
tempted the stationmasters are to allow him to stay, this is a railroad,
not a hotel. The surest way to be found out is to allow the traveler to stop.
Building for security
In the underground where the Mauras worked, everyone entered the train at a
single station. The engineer was the only person who ever knew the identity
and location of every conductor, station and traveler.
The security advantage is obvious. Participants can't betray each other,
even under severe duress. They simply don't have the knowledge.
However, the vulnerability of the system as a whole is equally obvious. If
you take out the engineer, you've stranded passengers in mid-journey and
halted the operation of the entire railroad, perhaps permanently.
A more decentralized railroad, with small, independent route systems and
carefully controlled connection points between them (a cell system), has
the advantage, like the Internet, of being able to route around blocked or
damaged points, while still not enabling participants to compromise many
others. You get additional flexibility, but never without at least some
degree of additional danger of exposure.
If you use the single-engineer system, Brendan says, "Each safe house
operator must know that at any time the engineer might be arrested and that
the operator must be prepared to help the refugee on hand hide out at
someone else's fallback place until the smoke clears. If the engineer
emerges with the railroad membership still intact, well and good; the
refugee can be retrieved from the fallback house and sent on. If not, the
operator may have adopted a permanent member to his or her own family - at
least until a new railroad can be built."
The people factor
As anyone who's ever been involved in covert activities knows, the most
difficult aspect of security lies in judging people. Whether you are a
traveler or an engineer, you must find the straight track between naive
trust and paralyzing suspicion. There is no magic method for doing so.
While it's the travelers' jeopardy that drives the system, it's the
engineer, and secondarily, the stationmasters, who are in the greatest
potential danger from the traveler. Typically, the traveler comes looking
for the railroad, probing, through friends of friends, for a source of
refuge and escape. While it's theoretically possible for the traveler to
be steered into a bogus railroad and busted, it's more likely for a police
agency thus to try to plant a bogus traveler in a genuine railroad to bust
The most open engineer of an underground railroad in the contemporary U.S.
is Faye Yager of Atlanta, whose network hides parents fleeing with children
alleged to be victims of child abuse. Yager holds "office hours" openly in
a Dunkin' Donut shop, where she meets potential travelers - something few
other railroaders would dare do. She demands considerable documentation of
their cases, but also uses her gut and experience when judging whether to
put a traveler on the road.
Even so, Yager was fooled at least once by a plant. And you must remember
that government agencies will go to great lengths to build plausible
identities for their agents. (When the U.S. Marshal's service was trying to
capture Randy Weaver, for instance, one of their abortive plans was to have
an agent pretend to buy the acreage up the hill from him. I have in my
files a copy of the license for this fictitious person's fictitious
dog; that's how detailed they were willing to be for a plan they
never even carried out.)
If you are the engineer, it may be safer to keep your eye out for potential
travelers and invite them into the system at your discretion - since anyone
who approaches you should automatically be considered suspect. But this way
will inevitably miss many people in genuine need.
If you are the potential traveler, you can see how difficult operators'
suspicions could make your life. Already desperate, you may find yourself
greeted with mistrust and demands for proof of your case that you don't
possess. Prepare for it. You are either going to need to persuade skeptical
people of your genuineness, have such a widely known or obvious plight that
strangers know it's right to help you, or you are going to need to be part
of an established network of very trusted and trustworthy contacts that can
get you onto the railroad on word alone. If you don't have that, you're
going to need a lot of luck and quick thinking to find your way into a
railroad once you're in trouble.
I consider myself to be fairly well "networked." But when I put out the
word that I was working on an article about underground railroads and
wanted to interview travelers and operators, I met a solid wall of silence,
even when I assured everyone that interviews could be anonymous. I asked a
friend, whose underground connections far exceed mine, to put out feelers.
He reported that the response was, flatly, "Why do you need to know? Are
you planning to run?"
The Mauras, who ultimately gave so much of their time and goodness to this
article, felt able to speak solely because they were busted several
years ago, after letting a traveler stay too long, and can no longer work
on the railroad. Others who gave hints of their experience were also long
off the road.
And that's as it should be. Those who need to know about an active railroad
can learn. Those who don't, shouldn't. I'm as grateful to every silent
current railroader as I am to the Mauras.
ID:Ticket to the future
There is one huge boulder lying on the tracks of any future railroad: the
problem of ID.
Slaves who escaped their nineteenth century masters needed little in the
way of identification. Theirs was not an ID Age. The twentieth century
radicals who revived the underground railroad in America during the 1960s
perfected the "dead-baby" method of ID: Find the grave of a child born
within a few years of you; write for a certified copy of its birth
certificate; use the certificate to get a drivers license and social
security number and you're in business.
Today, with death certificates routinely being filed with birth
certificates, the "dead-baby" method is practically a dead letter.
Illegal immigrants and privacy seekers have recently driven a market in
expertly forged ID. However, as ID documents become increasingly tied to
databases, and as the federal government increasingly imposes measures like
its "pilot program" to require all workers to have their social security
numbers scanned before they'll be allowed to get a job  the ID question naturally becomes more difficult.
But never impossible.
Weary travelers who want to get off the underground railroad and settle in
peace will have to put their best hopes in such things as:
- Corrupt DMV and Social Security officials, willing (for a price) to issue
"genuine" drivers licenses and ID cards without messy details like proof of
identity. Places where immigrants gather are already rife with such helpful
- Fake ID with built-in electronic devices clever enough to fool a scanner;
- Stolen equipment capable of duplicating the most high-tech ID;
- Plausible fake ID used in conjunction with false database entries, made
by sympathizers "on the inside";
- Sabotage that renders high-tech ID systems too unreliable to count on.
A former army counterinsurgency agent, who has also worked in the freedom
We need to talk among ourselves now to find ways of circumventing the
increasingly sophisticated identification cards, chips and
facial-recognition cameras being designed to block escapes. These
technological tools are not developed by tyrants, but by "our kind" of
people, and we must find ways to recruit them to our side so that they can
teach us how to foil or counterfeit the systems.
We are also going to need to recruit "moles" to infiltrate the FBI, BATF,
IRS, DEA, SSA and their state- and county-level equivalents. These recruits
should come from idealistic college-aged men and woman who have not yet
become identified with any resistance movements. Fired by an insurgent
idealism, such moles will do the extra work needed to rise in the ranks
until they occupy positions which will give them access to the plans and
technologies of the tyrants. Naturally, no infiltrator will know that there
are any others, let alone who they might be.
Wouldn't it be easier simply to "turn" present government employees? This
counterinsurgency agent friend warns: "You always have to be careful of the
person who comes to you and says, 'I'm a government employee and I'm ready
to turn,' Chances are, he's an agent provocateur. You're better off
to put your own person in there, even if it requires much more time and
Don't leave a paper trail
While travelers will need expert ID to be able to disembark from the
railroad, it's equally important that no ID follow them into the
railroad or on their journey. Every railroad worker must likewise be
protected against exposure of his identity.
Anonymity at every stage, and for every participant, is critical. A single
document, or even something like a monogram or laundry mark, could, in the
worst of circumstances, bring about a catastrophic wreck.
Faye Yager, the Atlanta-based railroad operator, has chosen to make her own
identity public for a variety of reasons. But she protects other
participants rigorously. A few years ago the FBI, frustrated by years of
futile efforts to halt Yager's train, collaborated with the Atlanta police
to work a sting operation involving a bogus mother on the run. Sweeping
into Yager's house with both arrest and search warrants, enforcement agents
hauled away boxes of papers, as well as the videotaped interviews Yager had
conducted with children prior to accepting them into her railroad.
Yet nowhere among all the papers could the FBI find any names or addresses.
And that's the way it must be in any railroad.
After a jury found her not guilty of all charges, two jurors came to Yager
and volunteered their homes to help her shelter children.
And that, too, is the way it will need to be, if a truly dynamic freedom
railroad is to be built. People will need to look right into the pit of
danger and still be willing to help - because it's necessary and because
"Besides," Brendan Maura shrugs, "you face danger on the freeway every day.
This, at least, is for a cause."
He adds: "People are going to be arrested, perhaps killed. Networks are
going to be blown. What we need is for people to respond by saying, 'Well,
I guess it's my turn to start one now.'"
Further reading: Let My People Go by Henrietta Buckmaster,
University of South Carolina (originally written in 1941, reprinted in
1992); The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, Fleming H. Revell
Company (reprinted October 1996); The Safe House by Jefferson
Mack, Paladin Press, 1998.