Ask Torontoist: Toronto's Black Burnt Street
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Ask Torontoist: Toronto’s Black Burnt Street

Ask Torontoist features questions posed by you, and answered by our elite team of specially trained investigative experts (also known as our staff). Send your questions to [email protected].

Reader Jay Thiessen asks:

I live on Blackburn Street in a row of workers houses built in the 1870s. Any idea if my street was named after Thornton and Lucie Blackburn? This couple lived a bit south and on the other side of the Don River, but Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book says they owned investment properties in this neighbourhood. It seems likely the street was named after them, but I don’t know if a street would have been named after a black couple in those days.

Torontoist answers:

Considering the close proximity of present day Blackburn Street to the historical site that was once the home of fugitive slaves Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, it is tempting to assume the street in question was named in their honour.
This, however, appears not to be the case.
For those who haven’t read Karolyn Smardz Frost’s award-winning book, I’ve Got A Home In Glory Land, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn were escaped slaves who came to Toronto in 1834 via the Underground Railroad. Besides establishing Toronto’s first taxi company, the couple were also prominent abolitionists. Their home became a destination for runaway slaves.
Contacted by email, Karolyn Smardz Frost said that she suspects Blackburn Street was not named after the subjects of her book. Writes Frost: “The couple lived in only one location, at the (present day) site of the Inglenook Community High School. After Thornton died, Lucie moved to Carlton and Bleecker [Street]. This house was torn down in the 1970s.”
According to Frost, the couple’s investment properties were rented to fugitive slaves at a nominal cost. All were located in St. John’s Ward. Historic ward maps of the city show Blackburn Street located in St. Matthew’s Ward.

Photo by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.

Though Heritage Toronto and City of Toronto Archives were unable to provide any insight into the significance of the street name, Gerald Whyte with the Riverdale Historical Society proposed an intriguing theory.
Historical maps reveal that prior to being straightened in the 1880s, the banks of the lower Don River once meandered a considerable distance east of its current course at the Gerrard Street East bridge. In fact, at one time the river’s banks came very close to the southern terminus of Blackburn Street.
Whyte notes in an email: “The aboriginal name for the Don River was Wonscoteonoch, meaning black-burnt country from the natural forest fires which ravaged the area.”
Could the naming of Blackburn Street be derived from this aboriginal title? As convenient as it may sound, the leap from black-burnt to Blackburn is not a huge one.
Ask Torontoist illustration by Sasha Plotnikova/Torontoist.