Riding the Underground Railroad to Toronto's First Taxi Company
Thornton and Lucie Blackburn
If you live east of the Don River, each time you head to the city, either by streetcar, bike or car along King Street, you hardly notice when you pass a quiet street called Sackville. But wandering south to the end of the street, you’ll discover Inglenook Community School and, in the schoolyard, a metal plaque that marks an important chapter in Toronto’s history. This quiet spot connects us to the first Toronto taxi company and to former slaves from the U.S. South who punched their ticket on the “Underground Railroad”.
This was once the home of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn. An archeological exploration led by Karolyn Smardz in 1985 found the foundation of the Blackburns’ home here, along with numerous household articles – cutlery, dinnerware and clay smoking pipes among them.
Escaping Slavery for Freedom in Canada
The Blackburns, both African-Americans, were slaves who launched a daring flight to freedom in Louisville, Kentucky,in 1831. They fled north to Detroit, helped by an informal network of people determined to help blacks reach freedom,known as the Underground Railroad. They remained there for two years.
Under U.S. law, they were still subject to recapture and return to their masters. But Detroit had a closely knit black community, and the Blackburns settled.That decision almost turned disastrous when they were identified, jailed and booked on a return trip to slavery in the South. But before that could happen they were dramatically rescued by a mob of supporters and spirited away across the Detroit River to Canada. The “Blackburn Riot” that freed them has been called Detroit’s first race riot, although it ended much more happily than most.
Thornton and Lucie arrived in Canada on June 17, 1833, but their tribulations were not yet done. The British law in Canada had not yet come to terms with fugitive slaves arriving from other jurisdictions.
In Britain, the final Slavery Abolition Act (1833) was still before Parliament when the Blackburns arrived. It took a precedentsetting judgment by Upper Canada’s Chief Justice John Beverly Robinson to determine that the Blackburns, and any future arrivals in the province, were free. This decision set the stage for thousands of escaped slaves to find freedom in this land.
Toronto’s First Transit – On Four Legs
When the couple moved to Toronto a year later, they built a home on the northeast corner of Sackville and Eastern,where today the Inglenook Community School sits. Thornton Blackburn was an ambitious man with a skill in high demand. During his years in Kentucky he had become an expert horseman in the home of his “master”. In Toronto, he managed,within a year, to establish the city’s first taxi business with horse and carriage we might now call a “jitney”.
The business flourished, and the Blackburns became substantial members of the community. They were pillars of Little Trinity Anglican Church on King Street, near their home. Thornton participated in organizations promoting the abolition of U.S. slavery and the creation of the Buxton, Ontario, settlement for former slaves.
A famous painting at the Royal Ontario Museum, View of King Street, Toronto,1846, shows Thornton’s cab travelling away from the viewer’s perspective. Is it a coincidence that the logo colours of the Toronto Transit Commission are the same as Thornton Blackburn’s cab?
Thornton Blackburn was also successful in an important personal way when he returned,at the risk of being re-enslaved,to rescue his mother Sibby from bondage in Kentucky. He died in 1890 at age 76, much admired and graciously retired.Lucie lived on until 1895. The entire Blackburn family are buried together in a prominent plot with a large tombstone in the Toronto Necropolis on Winchester Street beside Riverdale farm.