Interesting Toronto… Oldest neighbourhood

What is the oldest neighbourhood in Toronto?

Posted by Chris Bateman / AUGUST 1, 2015


 oldest neighbourhood torontoIn 1793, the little frontier town of York consisted of just 10 blocks: two rows of five stacked on top of each other between present day George, Front, Adelaide, and Berkeley streets. The entire city of Toronto grew from this tiny waterfront nucleus.

The original city is now firmly within the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. King St. east of Jarvis cuts right through the centre of the more than 200-year-old community.

toronto oldest neighbourhoodIn 1797, plans were made to extend the city to the north and west. Peter Russell, an administrator who succeeded town founder John Graves Simcoe, mapped out new roads west to Peter St. and north to Queen St. The extension included space for a market, court house, church and jail.

As historian Wendy Smith notes, the westward push was limited by an “ordnance boundary” located 1,000 feet east of Fort York. The canons that were meant to protect York from invasion needed a clear line of sight and so, at the time, nothing could be built closer to the military base.

Smith’s website, the Toronto Park Lot Project, maps the early boundaries of Toronto.

toronto oldest neighbourhoodThe allowance for a market spawned today’s St. Lawrence Market (the original allocation is currently occupied by St. Lawrence Hall) and the church block is now home to St. James Cathedral. The city’s first coffee shop was also located in the area, as was the first Upper Canada parliament buildings at Front and Berkeley.

The jail was built, too. It opened in 1798 with a small outdoor area for public executions. According to a plaque fixed to the outside of the King Edward Hotel, which now occupies the site, the first person hanged there was John Sullivan. He was convicted of stealing a forged bank note worth a dollar.

As the city grew, the original town blocks became part of the St. Lawrence Ward. The earliest community divisions were mostly named for the patron saints of the countries of the British Isles: St. George, St. Andrew, St. Patrick, and St. David.

St. Lawrence of Rome became associated with Canada when French explorer Jaques Cartier named the continent’s great eastern waterway after him in 1535.

The oldest buildings in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood date back to the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. On Front St., many of the historic former warehouses and factories turned storefronts were built in the 1870s and later, more than eight decades after the neighbourhood was established.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: Toronto Archives, Peter Russell map, Toronto Public Library, Ms1889.1.3.; Elizabeth Frances Hale watercolour, Library and Archives Canada, 1970-188-2092

Thornton Blackburn, Toronto’s first ‘cabbie’

The fascinating story of Toronto’s first cab company

Posted by Chris Bateman (

thornton blackburn toronto cab W.H. Coverdale

No Toronto history series would be complete without the astounding story of Thornton Blackburn, an escaped slave who made his way from Kentucky to Toronto via the Underground Railroad, helped settle others fleeing captivity, and established this city’s first horse-drawn cab company.

Blackburn’s unlikely story includes daring escapes from captivity, one of which sparked a riot in Detroit, tireless anti-slavery work, the construction of a city landmark and the establishment in Toronto of a service that’s become ubiquitous today.

In Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1800s Thornton and his wife Lucie were owned and used in forced labour at the height of American slavery. Thornton’s mother, Sibby, was also a slave. Little is known about the Thornton and Lucie’s early life, and there are no known pictures of either.

What we do know is the pair escaped their owners around 1830 and headed north on a steamboat up the Mississippi, switching to a stagecoach to reach Detroit, Michigan, where they lived an uneasy two years as fugitives. The pair were located by slave hunters and jailed in the city while their return to the south could be arranged. Although Michigan was a free state, racial segregation still existed and it seems authorities were still willing to incarcerate those who escaped captivity.

mississippi steamer thornton blackburnWhile the couple were jailed, Thornton was bound, shackled, and isolated, but Lucie was allowed visitors, one of whom was Mrs. George French, a woman sympathetic to the Blackburn’s plight. During her visit, French bravely managed to swap clothes and places with Lucie and allow the wanted woman to simply walk out of jail and cross the Detroit River to Essex County in Upper Canada. Freeing Thornton would prove much more difficult, however.

The day before he was due to be returned to Kentucky, an angry crowd stormed the jail, overpowered the guards, and managed to release Blackburn. Two people, Sleepy Polly and Daddy Walker, integral to the escape plan, helped transport Thornton to Essex County to be reunited with his wife. In his wake, Thornton left a two-day race riot, the earliest of its kind in Detroit, that would lead to the first riot commission established in the US.

Settling in Toronto, Thornton Blackburn, though illiterate, found work as a waiter at Osgoode Hall while authorities in Michigan twice unsuccessfully applied for the Blackburn and his wife to be deported. It was while he worked that he became aware of the city’s lack of a cab company, a concept already established and profitable in Montreal.

toronto thornton blackburn cab cityWorking with plans for a horse-drawn cab from Quebec, like the one shown above, Thornton commissioned the construction of the first wooden four-seater taxi and founded the company to run it, which he named “The City.” The venture was successful and laid the groundwork for several other rival companies in Toronto.

The City’s first cab was painted bright yellow and red and is captured in John Gillespie’s oil painting of King Street, shown above. The Blackburns grew the cab company and kept a small stable for the working horses at their home at modern day Sackville Street and Eastern Avenue. Though busy with his work, Thornton successfully returned to Kentucky in secret some time in late 1830s to rescue his mother, Sibby, from slavery. Thornton’s brother, Alfred, also joined the family in Toronto.

An tireless advocate for the abolition of slavery, Thornton Blackburn helped build Little Trinity Anglican Church, attended the North American Convention of Colored Freemen at St. Lawrence Hall in September 1851, helped settle escaped slaves in Toronto and Buxton, Ontario and was a friend of fellow anti-slavery campaigner George Brown.

Thornton lived out the remainder of his life in Toronto and is buried in Necropolis Cemetery with his wife; his life and contribution to the abolition of slavery is commemorated by two historical markers, both at the former site of the couple’s home. Recently, the site, now Inglenook Community High School, was excavated and revealed portions of the house, shed and cellar. The Department of Canadian Heritage recognizes Thornton and Lucie Blackburn as Persons of National Historic Significance.