Black History on the Trans Canada Trail in Niagara, Ontario, Canada

BLACK-HISTORY

Explore key stops on the Underground Railroad along the Trans Canada Trail

Historic plaques bring Black Canadian history alive on the Niagara River Recreation Trail in Niagara, Ontario, Canada

Black History on the Trans Canada Trail in Niagara, Ontario can be explored through a series of historic plaques and monuments located along the Niagara River Recreation Trail. This 57 km long paved hiking and cycling path is also known as the Fort to Fort Trail, because it follows the shores of the Niagara River from the Fort Erie National Historic Site of Canada in Fort Erie to the Fort George National Historic Site in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Whether you are exploring the trail on foot, bicycle, eBike, inline skates, or cross-country skis, or taking a leisurely drive on the Niagara Parkway, the area is rich in history, and it offers visitors an exciting opportunity to learn about the important role Black British, Black Loyalists, and Black Canadians had in helping shape Canada. Consequently, this route is also known as the Niagara Freedom Trail, because over 20 stops along its length highlight Niagara's role as a major terminus of the Underground Railroad, which was a series of routes, safe houses, and abolitionists that operated during the early to mid-nineteenth century to help African American slaves escape to free states and to Canada.

Bertie Street Ferry Landing: Learning about Black History on the Trans Canada Trail

The Bertie Street Ferry Landing is one of the first stops highlighting Black Canadian history that we encountered after leaving the Fort Erie National Historic Site on the Niagara River Recreation Trail. An historic plaque located in Freedom Park indicates that the small and neatly landscaped green space was once the landing spot for the longest operating ferry across the Niagara River, which was active from around 1796 until 1950. Interestingly, a nearby plaque entitled 'The Crossing' explains the importance of the ferry system to the Underground Railroad. Amazingly, historians estimate that up to 40,000 individuals escaped slavery in the American south by fleeing to Upper Canada, and ferry rides across the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York to Fort Erie, Ontario were the final stage in that long and extremely dangerous journey for many of those seeking freedom. Standing at the Bertie Street Ferry Landing, looking across the river at the United States, it is difficult to image what escaping slaves must have felt when they first landed here.

Bertie Hall:

Bertie Hall is the next stop hikers and cyclists will encounter on the Niagara River Recreation Trail, as they head north out of Fort Erie, on this section of the Trans Canada Trail in Ontario. This beautiful Greek revival style red brick mansion, with its row of stately white columns out front, was used as a warehouse in the nineteenth century. More importantly, it may also have served as a safe house for escaped slaves who had managed to cross the border into Upper Canada.  Unfortunately, entering Canada didn't always ensure a former slave's freedom and safety, as American bounty hunters were known to search the region seeking to recapture escapees.  Places like Bertie Hall often served as 'safe houses' where fugitive former slaves could hide. Our attention was drawn to this important building by a metalwork symbol of a fleeing slave located beside the historic plaque.

Little Africa: An Historically Important Community of Black Canadians in Niagara

Little Africa was a community of Black Canadians that was established in the area during the 1840's by escaped former slaves who decided to settle in the Niagara Falls region of Ontario, Canada. An unassuming plaque commemorating this community is located at the south side of the parking lot for the Niagara Parks Marina at Miller's Creek. Interestingly, the monument was placed as a reminder that many Canadian towns were established by Black people who had a significant influence upon the region. In addition, according to the Freedom Trail pamphlet, many former slaves who resided in the region made their living supplying lumber and wood to local railways and shipbuilders.  Although unassuming, this is an important stop for learning about Black history on the Trans Canada Trail in Niagara, Ontario.


Historic Little Africa, Freedom Trail, Niagara, Ontario. Photo credit Sean Morton. 

William Fitzgerald: Making History as the First African American Daredevil to Brave Niagara Falls

William Fitzgerald (1924 - 2022) comes to mind when you stand on Table Rock looking down at the awesome power of the water flowing over the famous Niagara Falls. Many daredevils have chosen to ride over the 52 m tall Horseshoe Falls, which has an astounding flow rate of around 750,000 gallons of water per second, in various conveyances over the years. However, William was the first African American to do so, riding over the falls in 1961 inside a metal sphere he helped to design called a 'Plunge-o-Sphere.' Unfortunately, a recent change in the rules required people to obtain a permit before going over the falls, which Fitzgerald failed to do. Apparently, he was the first person to be charged for violating the new rule, but paid the $100 fine without complaint.  While there is no historical plaque to commemorate this individual, taking a moment to remember the historic 'firsts' that have taken place, and recognizing the richness and diversity of the brave and talented people who achieved them is another way to celebrate Black history on the Trans Canada Trail in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Table Rock, Horseshoe Falls, Niagara, Canada. 
Rainbow over Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. 

Harriet Tubman: Famous Conductor on the Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman is one of the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad, and we encountered two historical plaques honoring her contributions on the side of the Niagara River Recreation Trail just north of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. The first plaque, which was installed in 2017 by the Niagara Parks Commission, commemorates Tubman's initial crossing into Canada in 1856. Amazingly, she made that crossing on a suspension bridge located near where the Whirlpool Bridge is now situated. Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland, and after escaping to Canada she became an icon of the Underground Railroad. In particular, she helped hundreds of escaped slaves reach Canada after passage of the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which led to the hunting, arrest, and kidnapping of former slaves, and free Black persons in both northern American states and British Canada. While Harriet Tubman is frequently recognized as a scout, spy, and nurse, her knowledge of nature and birds is less well-known. Interestingly, Tubman was a naturalist who used her knowledge of local flora and fauna to survive, and she used owl calls as a signal on the Underground Railroad to help in freeing slaves.

Harriet Tubman, 1870s. Photo credit: Harvey Lindsley/Library of Congress

The Colored Corps: Black Canadians in the Military

The Colored Corps are celebrated on an Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque that can be found near the base of the Brock Monument near the Queenston Heights National Historic Site of Canada. The Battle of Queenston Heights was an important confrontation during the War of 1812, during which American soldiers invaded British Canada. When conflict broke out between Britain and the United States, those of African descent in the Niagara region feared for their safety and that they would be forced back into slavery. As a result, in order to prove their loyalty to the Crown, many Black Canadians joined local militias, while others raised their own company. The Colored Corps was composed of approximately 30 men who were commanded by white officers. This unit fought throughout the War of 1812 and in the Battle of Queenston heights, as well as at the Siege of Fort George. Their bravery set a precedent, leading to Black units becoming an important part of the British Canadian Military until the First World War.
Historic plaque commemorating the role of the Colored Corps in the War of 1812. 

Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum for the Colonial Advocate

Following the Niagara River Recreation Trail section of the Trans Canada Trail down a long flight of wooden stairs heading north from Queenston Heights, hikers will come to the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum for the Colonial Advocate. The historic stone building was the home of William Lyon Mackenzie, who was a Scotsman, immigrant, general store owner and newspaper publisher. Now a printing press museum, the Mackenzie Printery houses the Louis Roy Press, the oldest wooden printing press in Canada, and the instrument used to publish the 1793 Act Against Slavery.  The importance of this Act makes this museum a keyfor learning about Black history on the Trans Canada Trail in Niagara, Ontario.
Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum, Queenston Heights. 
Mackenzie Printery, Niagara - home of the Louis Roy Press. 

Chloe Cooley: Inspiration for the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery

An historic plaque commemorating the life of Chloe Cooley can be found on the Niagara River Recreation Trail as you approach Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. Chloe Cooley was an enslaved Black woman who 'belonged' to a Loyalist living in Queenston Heights. He sold her to an American across the river, binding her, tossing her in a rowboat, and paddling her across the water while she screamed in protest. His actions were brought to the attention of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe by Peter Martin, a free Black and former soldier in Butler's Rangers. This prompted Simcoe to draft the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. 
Historic plaque commemorating Chloe Cooley on the Trans Canada Trail. 

Parliament Oak School

Parliament Oak School is located in the charming Victorian and Loyalist town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, near the northern end of the Niagara River Recreation Trail. Once the site of the colony's first parliament, it was here that Upper Canada's first Governor General, John Graves Simcoe, issued the Act to Limit Slavery on May 21st, 1793. Apparently, Simcoe had hoped to eliminate slavery entirely, but many of his Loyalist colleagues had emigrated from America during the revolution, bringing their slaves with them. As a result, he compromised and proposed banning the expansion of slavery and preventing the introduction of new slaves, while requiring those who were already in slavery to remain so. The Act to Limit Slavery was the first such piece of legislation in British Canada.

"Black history is not just for Black people - Black history is Canadian history."

by Jean Augustine

Voices of Freedom Park

A visit to the Voices of Freedom Park is a great way to begin or end any trip along the Niagara Parkway or the Niagara River Recreation Trail section of the Trans Canada Trail. The newly opened park and outdoor art exhibit is located at the heart of Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake, and it is an experiential art installation designed to engage, educate, and challenge visitors about the important moments and events in Black Canadian history. Visitors are encouraged to download the free BaladoDiscovery App, which will send them on a self-guided walking tour of important historical places in the area. Black voices from the past, present, and future describe in their own words the importance these places and events, and help us understand how Black Canadians shaped, and continued to influence this nation's history.
Explore Black History along Niagara's Freedom Trail

In Conclusion

In conclusion, Black history on the Trans Canada Trail can be explored through a series of historic plaques and monuments located along the Niagara River Recreation Trail, while also experiencing Niagara Falls, one of Ontario's most popular tourist destinations. During our Come Walk With Us Expedition, we encountered other opportunities to learn about Black history on the 28,000 km Trans Canada Trail as well, including a visit to the cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia where Viola Irene Desmond, a Black Canadian civil and rights activist and business woman challenged racial segregation in 1946.

Black History on the Trans Canada Trail, Niagara, Ontario

Explore key stops on the Underground Railroad on the Trans Canada Trail

Location (Map)

Niagara Falls, ON, Canada
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Comments 8

Andrea Horning on Sunday, 26 February 2023 03:32

Fantastic information and very well written!

Fantastic information and very well written!
Sonya Richmond on Monday, 27 February 2023 16:08

Thank you! There is some fascinating history in the Niagara region, as well as other parts of Canada. I learned a LOT during our cross-Canada hike on the Trans Canada Trail!

Thank you! There is some fascinating history in the Niagara region, as well as other parts of Canada. I learned a LOT during our cross-Canada hike on the Trans Canada Trail!
EH Canada Marketing Group on Sunday, 26 February 2023 19:32

This was an opener into the underground railroad and our history. Great story Sonia.

This was an opener into the underground railroad and our history. Great story Sonia.
Sonya Richmond on Monday, 27 February 2023 16:12

Thank you! I learned a lot about the Underground Railroad while walking this section of the Trans Canada Trail. In particular, I hadn't realized how complicated anit-slavery legislation in Upper Canada was, or that slaves weren't necessarily 'home free' when they reached Canada.

Thank you! I learned a lot about the Underground Railroad while walking this section of the Trans Canada Trail. In particular, I hadn't realized how complicated anit-slavery legislation in Upper Canada was, or that slaves weren't necessarily 'home free' when they reached Canada.
Kim Kenyon on Sunday, 26 February 2023 21:44

Thank you for sharing this less commonly known history of Canada Sonya in recognition of black history month. I was pleased to read about the Voices of Freedom Park, and marvel at the width of that paved trail around Niagara River Recreation Trail and its length of 57 Km.

Thank you for sharing this less commonly known history of Canada Sonya in recognition of black history month. I was pleased to read about the Voices of Freedom Park, and marvel at the width of that paved trail around Niagara River Recreation Trail and its length of 57 Km.
Sonya Richmond on Monday, 27 February 2023 16:14

It a wonderful section of trail to walk or cycle, not just for learning about history, but also for visiting Niagara Falls, Clifton Hill, local wineries, and several National Historic Sites. We thorough enjoyed it!

It a wonderful section of trail to walk or cycle, not just for learning about history, but also for visiting Niagara Falls, Clifton Hill, local wineries, and several National Historic Sites. We thorough enjoyed it!
Diana Mohrsen on Tuesday, 28 February 2023 01:35

Sonya, you've put together a very interesting story about the history of this area. I enjoyed reading it.

Sonya, you've put together a very interesting story about the history of this area. I enjoyed reading it.
Sonya Richmond on Tuesday, 28 February 2023 18:17

Thanks Diana! There is so much interesting history in Canada!

Thanks Diana! There is so much interesting history in Canada!
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