Monday, August 9, 2010

The Blackburns' Harrowing Escape

King Street in 1846
That's what King Street looked like in 1846, when Toronto was about 50 years old. You can see some of the city's oldest store fronts and, rising above them at the corner of Church, the spire of St. James Cathedral, which would soon burn down and be rebuilt as the church that stands there now. But the reason I Googled around looking for this particular painting is in the middle of the road, painted bright yellow: Toronto's first ever horse-drawn taxi cab. And perched atop it is the man who started the city's first ever cab company, Thornton Blackburn.

Just 15 years earlier, Blackburn had been living in Kentucky as a slave. He and his wife Lucie (or Ruth; there seems to be some confusion) were "owned" by an American judge who planned on selling Lucie down the river into the even-more-brutally-racist Deep South. But before he could, the couple escaped, fleeing up the Ohio River on a steamboat and eventually settling in Detroit.

They lived there in peace for a couple of years, but it didn't last. In 1833, they were tracked down and arrested by slave hunters who planned on shipping them back to their "owner" in Kentucky. Thankfully, that enraged Detroit's African-American community and white Abolitionists. They worked quickly and before long Lucie was free: a woman came to visit her in jail and they switched clothes so that the visitor could take her place while Lucie escaped.

Thornton, however, was shackled, bound and held under heavy guard. It took 400 men storming the prison to break him out and smuggle the couple across the river into Windsor. When Detroit's white bigots retaliated, attacking blacks in the streets, it kicked off Detroit's first ever race riot, which raged for three days and ended with the sheriff being shot and state troopers being called in.

In the aftermath, the governor of Michigan demanded that the Blackburns be extradited from Upper Canada and returned to slavery in the U.S., but the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada refused. "A man," he's said to have said, "can't steal himself."

Soon, the Blackburns had settled in Toronto, living in a house on Eastern Avenue at Sackville Street. Our city, of course, had plenty of its own bigots, but it promised to be a much safer place to live: while slave hunters were known to cross the border in search of their targets, there were already stories of Torontonians driving them out of the city once they'd been discovered. 

Thornton Blackburn got a job as a waiter at Osgoode Hall for a while, but soon came up with an idea for his own business. Getting a copy of the plans for Montreal's first horse-drawn taxi, he had another one made for himself. He called it "The City", painted it yellow and red, and used it to start Toronto's first ever cab company. It was a huge success. "The City" would roam our streets for nearly 60 years, from 1834 until Blackburn's death in the 1890s. The cab became such an important icon for the city that the TTC ended up adopting the same red and yellow colour scheme, which they still sort of use to this day. Before long the Blackburns had managed to buy a few other properties around town and used them to help make Toronto a hub for the Underground Railroad, renting their houses out cheaply to other escaped slaves.


After the Blackburns' death, their story was forgotten for nearly 100 years. It wasn't until 1985, when an archeological dig accidentally stumbled across the remains of their house on Eastern, that people started poking around looking for more information. Karolyn Smardz Frost was one of those people, and she wrote a book about the Blackburns called I've Got A Home In Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, which I'm thinking I may very well go out and buy as soon as I get off work today. The Star published excerpts from it here and here and somewhere else I can't find. You can also go visit Thornton Blackburn's grave, which rests in the Necropolis cemetery in Cabbagetown.

This post is related to dream
14 The Great Fire
Lucie Blackburn, 1849


  1. very informative post about Blackburns , and his wife Lucie its very impressive story
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