Black History: The Underground Railway is an important part not only in terms of black history, but of the history of southwestern Ontario.
Many historians have written about the importance placed on a railway connection by the settlers in early Ontario communities. Researching old newspapers indicates the anger and remorse felt when Collingwood, instead of Owen Sound, was chosen as the northern terminus for a rail line from Toronto. For two decades Owen Sounders continued to lament the lack of a rail connection with the southern areas of what became the province of Ontario.
The period of the late 1840s and 1850s was a time of railway expansion in this part of Ontario. Consequently many historians have written extensively about the importance of a rail connection. However, while steel rails were being laid through the Upper Canadian wilderness another "railway" was transporting people into the same hinterland, often without the need of iron horses or tracks. In fact when this railroad arrived in town there was not any great billowing clouds of smoke and steam from a locomotive, instead it arrived almost unnoticed!
This "phantom" railway came to Owen Sound in the 1850s, or sooner and its passengers made as large a contribution to this community as those who would arrive on the Toronto Grey and Bruce railroad which arrived finally in the 1870s. The riders of the underground railroad were runaway slaves from the United States. Because it operated in opposition to existing laws in the United States it was known as the Underground Railroad. Its passengers lived under the constant threat of capture at any point along their route to freedom. One of the northern most terminals for this "freedom" train was Owen Sound!
Research indicates that many African Americans arrived and made their new life in Owen Sound and the surrounding area. The 1861 census reveals that Owen Sound Ontario's population totalled 2,216 citizens and that 88 were of African American descent. By the 1880s the black community numbered 667.
These numbers suggest that there should be a lot more written about the contributions of blacks in this community. Alas this is not the case. It is only in the past few years that stories pertaining to the community's black history heritage have surfaced.
Some of the information that does exist suggests that the first black citizen in Owen Sound may have been John "Daddy" Hall. He became somewhat of a legend in the community, as he was the town's watchman, town crier and bell-ringer. One writer of regional black history reported that the citizens referred to "Daddy" as a "walking newspaper". Adding to the mystique of Hall was the fact that when he died in 1925 it was thought that he was 118 years old!
Many claim that "Daddy" Hall was probably the first the black citizen in this community. However, I would like to point out that long before the Underground Railroad arrived in Owen Sound there was another man who was probably the first African American to call this community his home. Isaiah Chokee arrived in Owen Sound in either 1841 or 1842 aboard W.C. Boyd's vessel, the "Fly".
Many years earlier Chokee had been captured in Africa and taken to the United States to be sold into slavery. However, fate intervened, and while his friends, neighbours and probably members of his own family were sold he was kept on board a British man-of-war to work. After 12 years at sea he jumped ship in New York and made his way to Toronto where he was hired by Boyd to serve as a cook and deck hand aboard the "Fly".
An early settler to Owen Sound, A.M. Stephens writes in his memoirs of several sailing adventures that he shared with Chokee. However, Chokee disappears from the pages of the memoirs and no further indications of his presence exist to my knowledge. The "Fly" provided a life line for the early settlers of Owen Sound and because Chokee risked his life many times sailing on the "Fly" to bring the necessities of life back to this community.
Information for this article about the Underground Railroad and its role in the black history of Owen Sound came from the local history section in the Owen Sound Library as well as the Fourth Entrance to Huronia by Melba Croft and Georgian Bay; The Sixth Great Lake by James Barry.
A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.
For more information about the history of black community, and Owen Sound, please see my book, Owen Sound: The Port City published by Dundurn Press.
12-year-old Walks to Owen Sound in 1851 from the journal of a teenage boy's experience travelling with his brother in the untamed Upper Canadian wilderness.
In the 1920s, Owen Sound got New Elevators. After losing the CPR elevators to fire, the community fought hard to get new elevators for their harbour and improve the community's economy.
The 1930s Were Not All Bad there were some successes in the Owen Sound area and there was one natural phenomenon, that was unusual to the region that occurred.
The 1944-1945 Grey North By-Election would surprise Prime Minister King and all of Canada as the Grey North electorate refused to be dictated to by Ottawas political elites.
The were 1950s a Decade of Change in the Owen Sound area. A local boy starred in the NHL; there was a significant industrial change; schools were standing to experience the baby boom.
1960s: Owen Sound's Education Expansion: 1960s Owen Sound was a period of growth and one result of this was a need for the expansion of education services for the growing population.
1960s Owen Sound marked a period of change and new growth to the commercial and industrial life that would impact the citizens of Owen Sound and change the patterns of doing business.
The Bible was the Law in the 1840s in this region because the region was unrepresented by the government peace and justice were community responsibilities.
Blazes! Fires were a problem in the early years in the Owen Sound area, buildings were often made of wood and firefighting equipment water sources were inadequate were.
Brooke: A brief history of an important, yet distinctly different, community that became a key element in Owen Sound's development as a important Georgian Bay port city.
Charles Rankin, I Presume: October 7, 1840 marked the meeting of Land Agent John Telfer and surveyor Charles Rankin on the banks of the Sydenham River and the founding of Owen Sound.
The cost of living in 1900 in Owen Sound may seem great, but when you take into consideration other factors, things were perhaps not all that wonderful.
The CPR Grain Elevator Fire of 1911 spelled the end of Owen Sound's role as the eastern terminus of the CPR Great Lakes Fleet.
Black History: Emancipation Day celebrates the abolition of slavery and it continues to be an annual celebration in many locations that were in some way, or another touched by the impact of slavery.
Black History of Owen Sound: Version 2: There is some debate about the first black citizen in the Owen Sound area. Here is more information for your consideration.
A Curvy Route to Toronto provided a rail connection between Owen Sound and Toronto, the curvy part was thrilling, but beautiful for the passengers and strenuous for the crew.
Billy Bishop: Owen Sound Hero earned national and international fame as a World War One Fighter pilot and used his high profile to aid in the World War Two effort.
John Harrison - A Tough Owen Sound Pioneer whose grit and determination created a prosperous life for himself and his family in a new community.
William Harrison, The Source of John Harrison's Grit: details the influence of John's father, William Harrison, on John and his siblings.
John Muir, the legendary naturalist, who promoted the idea of protected nature spaces, spent time in Ontario and I went to help find evidence of his stay in the Owen Sound area.
Black Clawson Kennedy: An Iconic Owen Sound Industry provided income for area residents and economic development for the community for almost 150 years.
Amalgamation In and Around Owen Sound is not an unusual happening. Some form of boundary changes have occurred at many different times over the years.
Canada' First Pharmacy Chain Store: The Owen Sound-based drug store chain of Parker and Cattle is credited with being the first pharmacy chain store enterprise in Canada.
DC Taylor: Owen Sound Entrepreneur was not only progressive businessman, he was also an important contributor to the social and cultural fabric of his community.
Jimmy Grant was a high wire walker who was a fearless athlete who faced all challenges without a worry of the possible fatal consequences of his daredevil actions.
Newspapers hold a special place in the history of any community, and the Owen Sound Sun Times, and its predecessors, beginning with the Comet, are no exception.
Owen Sound Businesses: 1920s were owned and operated by families whose deep roots in the community and their efforts had created the backbone of the community and brought success to the port city.
Owen Sound's centennial celebrations in 1957 brought the community together for events such big name entertainers, sports competitions, street dances and much more in honour of the community's past and projecting the city's bright future.
Owen Sound: Dry Gulch Canada Learn the reason why Owen Sound was the last city in the grasp of the temperance movement.
First Cars in Owen Sound could be purchased for less than $500.00!
The harbour history of Owen Sound is rich with detail of businesses which were located at various wharves.
Owen Sound's lacrosse tradition is steeped with great teams and players who deserve more attention than history has given it.
The Owen Sound Library has been the focal point of life in the Owen Sound region for many decades, as a treasure trove of entertaining and educational materials.
Owen Sound's Police Force - The Big Four were legendary in their maintaining the peace efforts in a rowdy Great Lakes port in the early 1900s.
Hillcrest School Memories a look back at my public school days when Owen Sound's Hillcrest Public School celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1998.
News of War: The 1940s was supposed to provide the world with a respite after the hardship of the 1930s depression. However World War Two brought more adversity.
Owen Sound 1840 Onward! From a clearing in the Georgian Bay wilderness to a booming port city the 1800s were a time of growth and prosperity.
Owen Sound's First Newspaper: The Comet came into existence a mere 10 years after the first settlers braved the wilderness that would become the Grey and Bruce region.
Owen Sound's First Town Council was created to develop the necessary infrastructure for a pioneer community to grow and prosper.
Owen Sound Tavern Bylaw (1857) tried to tackle the issue of monitoring taverns in the Upper Canadian pioneer wilderness.
Owen Sound's 1857 Bylaw: Dog Control illustrated how a pioneer town controlled dogs in the community, sometimes even using harsh measures.
Owen Sound CPR Strike in 1908 immobilized harbour activities in that important Georgian Bay port, the CPR's eastern Great Lakes terminus.
Owen Sound CPR Link began with a bang, suffered a setback, and ended with a whimper.
Owen Sound Entrepreneurs: S.J. Parker & Richard Notter used their wealth and their friendships to built many community-oriented businesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Owen Sound 1920 Stories provide an interesting look at the community as it was about to become a city.
Owen Sound 1920s: Optimism abounded in the port city as a new decade began, The town was becoming a city and the economic outlook seemed bright.
Owen Sound Hospital History is one of a community coming together to take care of the medical needs of the entire community.
Owen Sound Softball and Baseball has a Long Tradition From the 1980s Clippers and the Wawanekas to the 1990s Selects, Owen Sound has a been well-represented in these sports.
Owen Sound Stories: On the Attack! Throughout the history of the community, citizens were not afraid to go on the attack to promote the needs of their town.
Owen Sound Street Names honour the individuals who made a contribution to Owen Sound's development. Today the streets are numbered to help visitors find their way.
O.S.C.V.I.: the History of an Owen Sound High School details from the very beginning the establishment of a high school in the community.
Pioneer Story of a Child in 1846 Owen Sound details life in the last wilderness in Upper Canada in the 1840s.
Pioneer Story of a Child in 1846 (Part 2) continues the memories of Elizabeth Byth as she encountered life in the Upper Canada wilderness that became Owen Sound.
Pioneer Theatre was a big hit in Owen Sound and across southern Ontario, where Vaudevillians like Perth Ontario's Marx Brothers played to full houses.
U.S. President Taft Visited Owen Sound Ontario, a Georgian Bay port in a momentous winter of events in 1920 as Owen Sound celebrated its incorporation as a city.
Ship arrivals meant full shelves in stores and larders as pioneers and shopkeepers eagerly awaited goods to fill their depleted necessities
Some Interesting 20th Century Events in Owen Sound: One, in particular featured a mayor acting to avert a major labour-related confrontation.
Sunday Work Laws in the 19th Century in Owen Sound and Grey County region were very strict, with no exceptions allowed.
The 1940's: An Eventful Decade in Owen Sound and Grey County: A war; a surprising political event; sports celebrations and much more.
Wawanekas: Fastball pioneers who were a legendary women's fastball team from Owen Sound who dominated their sport for a decade or more.
Political Corruption in 1852 Owen Sound? Does it seem possible that this could happen in a pioneer community on the Georgian Bay shores? Read on, and decide.
Emily Pankhurst Visits Owen Sound. The well-known suffragette visited Owen Sound and spoke not only about suffrage, but the bolshevik threat.
Owen Sound Church History: First United Church was in fact the very first church in the Owen Sound community. It was preceded only Rev Neelands a circuit rider.
Lacrosse History in Owen Sound begins in the late nineteenth century and records the numerous championships that have been captured by Owen Sound teams.
Pioneer Ingenuity: Building Lime Kilns was essential for pioneers as without lime they could not build their brick homes.
Boosterism in 1890s Owen Sound targeted promoting economic development in Owen Sound. The port city showcased what it had to offer investors and visitors alike.
A pioneer home was very utilitarian. It served the pioneer family's essential needs, while the work of clearing the land and planting crops took priority.
Pioneer justice might be described as ruthless. But the question remains, did they always get the right man?
CPR Grain Elevator Fire in 1911 in Owen Sound harbour would have a profound impact on that Georgian Bay community.
Reverend Ryerson Visits Owen Sound and despite a great reception from the citizens of the community, he posts a negative newspaper story of the community.
The Leith Golf Course has provided many families with great memories. The history of this golf course starts, and ends, with the generosity of one family
Fenians: A Threat: The threat of an attack by Fenians was very real in Upper Canada in the 1860s and this was especially true in port communities like Owen Sound.
Inglis Falls is not only a beautiful place to enjoy nature, it is also the home of one of Owen Sound's first industries.
An Owen Sound pioneer, A.M. Stephens provided us with a story about his early years helping to carve out a community in this part of Georgian Bay.
Pioneer industry: William Kennedy William Kennedy's efforts to build an important foundry and machine shop on the banks of Owen Sound's harbour.
Pioneer Resort: King's Royal Park From 1840 meeting to opulent pioneer resort, the citizens of Owen Sound have always worked hard to promote the economic growth and development of their community, and their part of the Georgian Bay shoreline.
Sailing stories: Owen Sound Shipbuilding from the earliest time of settlement busy shipyards dotted the Owen Sound bay where shipbuilding took place, sometimes at a feverish pace.
Spanish Flu Impacted Owen Sound, Ontario causing illness and death throughout the region. But it also illustrated the strength of the community spirit in the area.
The summer of 1844 was definitely not a picnic for the early settlers in the Georgian Bay region around pioneer settlement that would become Owen Sound.
Golf Course Review: Stone Tree Golfing at the Stone Tree Golf Club, a golfer can also enjoy sighting American Goldfinches, Purple Martins and the majestic Blue Heron while they pursue their quest to improve their golf game!
Owen Sound Ontario: A Unique Perspective: Book provides a unique and humorous perspective about this Georgian Bay port and hockey hotbed.
Water Quality in Owen Sound has been an issue since the 1840s, two Owen Sound entrepreneurs in the 1870s attempted to rectify the situation.
Owen Sound, located on beautiful Georgian Bay offers a wide variety of entertainment and shopping delights for visitors of all ages. The city and its surrounding area has a rich history, parks and other natural areas for bird watchers, hikers, cross country skiers, etc.