The Underground Railroad And Black History on the Bruce Trail

Many Toronto Club members were interested in following Zwena Gray, a Black university student who hiked the 900km trail this summer. Zwena was quoted widely by news media, particularly because she was visiting historic sites of the Underground Railroad along the way. As many as 30,000 freedom seekers made their way to Canada.

So where is the Canadian portion of the Railway and how does it intercede with the Bruce Trail?

The answer is not linear; it’s much like the bends and contours of the Bruce Trail, with just as many intriguing stories. Zwena, a Detroit native, whose mother lived in Windsor, understands very well the geography of the Detroit-Windsor Railroad crossing.  Four very significant sites are located in southwestern Ontario:

  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site – Dresden, ON
  • Sandwich First Baptist Church – Windsor, Ontario
  • Buxton National Historic Site – Chatham, ON
  • John Freeman Walls Museum – Lakeshore (near Windsor), ON
    Learn more here

The Underground Railroad also crossed into Canada at the Niagara River. Harriett Tubman, the famous abolitionist, and a conductor for the Railroad lived in St. Catharines from 1851-1862. She risked her life and crossed back into the United States 19 times to aid the cause. St. Catharines has six historic sites related to Black History and the city was considered the final stop on the Railroad in the 1820s. Niagara Section hikers might enjoy a small detour from the trail to explore the museum.

Owen Sound and Thornbury were two Georgian Bay ports where freedom seekers also found refuge by ship (and some by land). There is a Black History Museum in Clarksburg, near Thornbury which celebrates the Black settlements and pioneers. Thornbury is in the Beaver Valley section of the Bruce Trail.

Owen Sound is located in the middle of the Sydenham Section of the Bruce Trail and it is the northern-most terminal. The City annually hosts an Emancipation Festival, walking tours and has an award-winning Black history exhibit. In 2004 the City erected a Cairn to commemorate the contribution of Black settlers. Sydenham hikers won’t have to go far off the trail to check out the local museum.

Many communities along the Trail have stories of Black pioneers, entrepreneurs and community leaders. In Georgetown (Toronto Section) the town recently renamed a local park to commemorate the contributions of Henry Thomas Shepherd, who was a veteran of both World Wars, a local Fire Chief and community leader. He was the son of a freedom seeker who sought refuge in Canada and worked on a local farm.