Much of Oshawa’s history is hidden in plain sight, with many of the city’s main roads acting as living memorials to the most influential people of the time. Lisa Terech, Community Engagement at the Oshawa Community Museum, explored the man behind Thornton Road:
Rev. Robert Thornton was born in Scotland in 1806. He was an ordained minister of the United Secession Church of Scotland and was sent to preach in Canada in 1833, the year he married Margaret Thompson.
After a 7 week journey from Scotland to New York, the Thornton’s boarded a ship that they thought would bring them to Toronto but instead, went to Cobourg. It was from here that Rev. Thornton left on foot to go to Toronto to find a new home. When he reached Whitby, he came upon a settlement of Scottish settlers who asked him to become their minister. Rev. Thornton agreed and thus became the first Presbyterian minister in the area.
The first meeting place of the Presbyterians was west of Union Cemetery on Moore’s Hill (at the corner of Garrard and Hwy #2). In 1837, four years after Thornton arrived in Whitby, the Presbyterians built their own church on the site which is now Union Cemetery. There are indications that the church was large and could seat up to 600 worshippers.
Rev. Thornton also had a keen interest in education and he organized several schools in Toronto and Cobourg, and served as the local Superintendent of Education as well as Inspector of Schools.
Rev. Thornton supported Temperance – the abolishment of the sale of whiskey – which was a contentious issue of the time. He saw cheap whiskey as a hindrance to the progress of society, and believed if the immigrant farmers were to succeed, then they would have to abstain from consuming alcohol. He was credited with organizing the first Temperance demonstration, a march from Oshawa to Whitby.
Rev. Thornton died on February 11, 1875 in his 69th year, and on the day of his interment in Union Cemetery, businesses closed and there was a lengthy procession of mourners to the cemetery.
Today, Rev. Robert Thornton is remembered by a cairn placed on the site of the log cabin church on Moore’s Hill. The stone memorial at the corner of Garrard and Hwy #2 in Whitby looks out of place on the grounds of the strip mall that looms behind it, but it was was erected in 1937 to commemorate the centennial of the first Presbyterian services held in the area. Thornton Road today is adjacent to Rev. Thornton’s land.
About the Author
Lisa Terech started with the Oshawa Community Museum in 2007 as a volunteer and joined the staff in October 2010. In the role of Community Engagement, Lisa participates with the Museum team in developing and delivering creative, engaging and consistent public programs. A lifelong resident of the Oshawa area, Lisa truly enjoys going out in the community and being a champion for Oshawa’s history and its future.