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Canada's Unmade Roads
By Dave McIntosh


We call as our first two witnesses to the state of early Canadian roads Thomas Need, a pioneer on Pigeon lake near Peterborough, Upper Canada, and Dr. Harvey J. Philpot, a Crimean War surgeon who came to Canada as a backwoods doctor.

Here is Need, in his Six Years in the Bush, published in London in 1838:

The distance from Peterboro’ to the lake shore was about six miles, over which a friend kindly offered to transport my effects in his waggon. We started about nine o’clock in the morning; I, in my inexperience, believing that though the road through the forest was notoriously bad, a couple of hours at most would suffice for the traject; at the end of that time, however, we had scarcely accomplished half the distance, when the wheels sunk so deep in a slough, that two hours more were taken up in extricating them. The next two miles were accomplished with still more difficulty, for we were obliged repeatedly to make a corduroy, or in other words, to cut stakes, and lay them horizontally for the wagon to pass over; but even this scheme failed at last; and at a mile distant front the lake, our teamster declared the waggon inextricably fixed; our only chance was then to loosen the horses, and load them with the goods, which was done; and in this manner we reached the lake, at six o’clock in the evening, covered with mud, hungry, and exhausted.

At another juncture, Need had a one-word description for all Canadian roads: “unmade," as, presumably, in “unmade beds".

Dr. Philpot spent seven years practising in this country before he wrote Guide to the Canadian Dominion, published in London in 1871. Here he describes a corduroy road:

Large quantities of brush and underwood are cut and flung down upon the swampy ground. Upon the top of this are placed, side by side, trunks of trees about 14 or 20 feet in length, and nearly of a size as possible. Over these again, earth and sods are thrown and left to be compacted by the waggons and teams which will eventually pass over it. Should any of my readers be desirous of forming some idea of the sensation produced through their organism by travelling over a “corduroy road," 1 would suggest to them to get into a Bath-chair and allow themselves to be dragged for a mile or two over the sleepers of a neighbouring railway. I shall not forget, in a hurry, my first experience of a journey over one of these timber pontoons. 1 hung on with my hands to the wooden seat of our waggon, my feet played vigorously like castanets the “devil’s tattoo" upon the floor of the springless conveyance, whilst my teeth rattled one against another like dice in a box; my hat was soon shaken off, and my body jarred and strained in every joint and ligament. My driver kept conversing with me all the time quite unconcernedly.

You get the idea: uncomfortable. But the earliest Canadian roads were worse. They were the portages connecting rivers and lakes and bypassing waterfalls and other obstructions. The main mode of transportation was water; the chief vehicle was the canoe. A road was not needed to seek and carry furs. Stephen Leacock wrote that the trade in beaver skins and not agriculture governed the life and destiny of New France. As the English were to show, “the real secret of domination of the continent lay in emigration and settlement, the occupation of the land, the substitution of the pioneer for the bush-ranger, the farmstead for the trail.”

The first Canadian road was probably a seven-mile set of ruts between Cap Rouge and Quebec City built in the late 1600s and today part of the city’s Grande Allée. By 1734 it was possible, under good conditions, to travel by coach from Quebec City to Montreal in 4½ days. Halifax was founded in 1749 and that same year had a road connection to Windsor. Joseph Howe wrote in 1837 that most Nova Scotia roads were no more than blazed trails and noted that the Halifax-Pictou postman travelled on foot and shot partridge for sale as he went along. The first road in Newfoundland connected St. John's to Portugal Cove eight miles away; it was laid down in the early 1800s.

Statute labour for road-making dates in Canada from 1793. At that time property owners had to devote up to 12 days a year maintaining the road in front of their homes, especially by marking it in winter. Statute labour (the corvee in New France) lasted nearly 150 years. Here is an example from Prince Edward Island, recorded in manuscript in the National Archives by a Mr. Gardiner of Charlottetown:

In 1820 and for many years since, each man was required to work 6 entire days; the time for meals and travelling to and from the place of Statute Labour was not computed, but every person was to work his full time, but not to exceed 12 hours in any one day, and not a minute allowed but the actual time he was working. A clause in the act forbids the improper practice of placing ropes across the roads during the performance of Statute Labour, and illegally stopping travellers to obtain Rum from them and must on no account whatever be permitted.

The first hated toll road, in Lower Canada, was opened in 1805 and it was not until 1815 that the British North American colonies began setting aside legislative funds for road-building. The first regular stagecoach service between Upper and Lower Canada was established in 1830: in the same year coach runs began to London and Niagara from Toronto. A Quebec-Toronto letter took a week (much like today) and some passengers walked instead of riding — and arrived ahead of (he stage. But the stages lasted until the railways came.

There were early laws against drunk driving and against “furious” driving (speeding). Even with sober drivers, waggons, buggies, carts, buckboards, caliches, sleighs and carioles were tipsy. Sleigh bells were required in winter to warn other drivers in storms. Incidentally, it wasn't wise of a farmer to put up a rail fence along the road. They were often dismantled to help build or repair corduroy roads.

William Dalton hired a waggon and driver to traverse woods near Chippawa in the Niagara district. He described the journey in his Travels in the United States of America and Part of Upper Canada, published in Appleby, England, in 1821:

Our charioteer conducted us over all these places in safety; and even when trees, blown down by the wind or by the ravages of time, lay across our road, we went directly over them.

Marvellous shocks did we often receive when going over these, or over the stumps of others which had been carelessly felled. We were often obliged to stop to mend our vehicle, which was frequently disjointed by the roughness of this road. And it was worth enduring all the shocks to see these horses step over trees nearly breast high without any hesitation or even making a plunge or false step.

Winter was the favourite time of year by far for transportation. The rivers froze and made better highways than even the frozen ruts and mud holes of the regular roads. Philemon Wright in mid-February, 1800, led 5 families in 7 sleighs, with 14 horses and 8 oxen, 80 miles on the Ottawa River to found Hull, Quebec.

Nineteenth-century books about Canada abound in examples of winter travel. Here are a few of them:

D'Arcy Boulton in Sketch of His Majesty's Province of Upper Canada (London, 1805):

Travelling here is so habitual, that a farmer and his wife think it nothing extraordinary to make an excursion of six or seven hundred miles in the winter to see their friends; neither does such a trip incur much expense; for they usually carry with them, in their sleigh, provisions for their journey, as well as grain for the horses.

The making of river ice roads caught the eye of George Henry. He wrote in The Emigrant’s Guide, or, Canada As It Is. published in Quebec City about 1835:

It is a custom in the winter to make, or rather plant roads on the ice; it is done when the ice first takes by collecting a quantity of green brush, the branches of the fir and cedar trees, making holes in the ice, and planting this brush in groves across the ice to any given place; it thus serves for a road all the winter. At different places, both on the St. Lawrence and on the Ottawa, you will see these roads continuing for miles, and are of the greatest utility.

There were hazards. The winter river roads were so popular that many tavern keepers moved their businesses to temporary shelters on the ice. John MacTaggart, a surveyor on the Rideau Canal, noted in his Three Years in Canada, published in London in 1829:

Sometimes they [tavern keepers] will remain too long in these inns after the thaw comes on, being greedy, and not removing their quarters so long as thay are catching a farthing; floods will therefore come on, sometimes during the night, and sweep all to desolation. Whole families have thus been hurried away and drowned.

The economic aspects of winter roads were remarked by Francis Fairplay in The Canadas As They Now Are (London, 1833):

Travelling here is so habitual, that a farmer and his wife think it nothing extraordinary to make an excursion of six or seven hundred miles in the winter to see their friends; neither does such a trip incur much expense; for they usually carry with them, in their sleigh, provisions for their journey, as well as grain for the horses.

The making of river ice roads caught the eye of George Henry. He wrote in The Emigrant's Guide, or. Canada As It Is. published in Quebec City about 1835:

It is a custom in the winter to make, or rather plant roads on the ice; it is done when the ice first takes by collecting a quantity of green brush, the branches of the fir and cedar trees, making holes in the ice, and planting this brush in groves across the ice to any given place; it thus serves for a road all the winter. At different places, both on the St. Lawrence and on the Ottawa, you will see these roads continuing for miles, and arc of the greatest utility.

There were hazards. The winter river roads were so popular that many tavern keepers moved their businesses to temporary shelters on the ice. John MacTaggart, a surveyor on the Rideau Canal, noted in his Three Years in Canada, published in London in 1829:

Sometimes they [tavern keepers] will remain too long in these inns after the thaw comes on, being greedy, and not removing their quarters so long as thay arc catching a farthing; floods will therefore come on, sometimes during the night, and sweep all to desolation. Whole families have thus been hurried away and drowned.

The economic aspects of winter roads were remarked by Francis Fairplay in The Canadas As They Now Are (London, 1833):

By the consolidation of the snow, the worst roads are converted into the best for the transport of heavy goods, with great case to the cattle, while the lighter carriages spin along with a rapidity perfectly unattainable at other times. Indeed, a mild winter is regarded by the Canadians as a great calamity, especially by those situate at a distance from the navigable waters, who at this season convey their produce to market, and bring back their supplies of heavy goods, as potash kettles, liquors, etc., with the most trifling labour compared with what would be required without the snow.

William H.G. Kingston in Western Wanderings (London, 1856) gives us a vivid picture of the Lower Canada cariole which differed from the Upper Canada sleigh with its iron runners and high-set framework:

The cariole, on the contrary, is placed on low runners of wood so that the front part of the body almost touches the ground; and when it meets with any slight impediment in the shape of a heap of snow, it drives it onward until a ridge is formed, over which it has to mount; when coming down on the other side it forms a corresponding hollow. Thus it progresses, covering the whole road with ridges and hollows like the waves of the sea, which gradually increase in size as other carioles pass over them. These hollows are called “cahots,” and they and their cause arc justly held in abhorrence by all Canadian travellers in winter.
James Inches (Letters on Emigration to Canada, Perth, 1836) was the most meticulous critic of farming in this country. Among its major disadvantages were roads “invariably bad”. (The greatest disadvantage, he said, was the near impossibility of getting children educated).

The first wooden plank road began eastward from Toronto in 1835-36. The sawn timbers (hardwoods and white and yellow pine) provided a big improvement over the corduroy road. Stage coaches could do eight miles an hour; horseshoes lasted twice as long. But the plank road endured only two decades because of the rising cost of lumber.

The first macadamized road covered 20 miles between Kingston and Napanee in 1837-39. It comprised layers (from the bottom) of dirt, large gravel, medium gravel and small stone, a process devised by English engineer John 1.. McAdam in 1815.

The Temiscouata Trail linked the St. John and St. Lawrence Rivers. Abraham Pryor, an American surgeon, made the 280-mile trip and wrote in An Interesting Description of British America (Providence, 1819) that so many travellers had perished in this “fearful desert” that the government had installed army veterans on farms 20 miles apart not to farm but to succor weary passers-bv.

In 1870, at the time of the Red River Resistance, Colonel Garnet Wolseley led 1,400 troops over the Dawson Trail from Port Arthur to Fort Garry (Winnipeg). Along the 450-mile route (140 miles road, 310 miles water) were 47 portages of which all the major ones were corduroy roads. It took Wolseley 54 days; two years later it was possible to cover the distance in nine days. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was built, the route was abandoned.

The 1858 gold rush in British Columbia led to construction of the 385-mile Cariboo Road from Yale, the head of Fraser River navigation, to Barkervillc where Billy Barker sank his fabulous pit in 1861. The road, much of it hanging to the wall of the Fraser Canyon like a balcony, was completed in three years and is still a great interior highway to the north. “Express” stages reached Barkerville from Yale in four days, fresh teams replacing tired horses every 12 to 15 miles.

Between Winnipeg and the Rockies, the prairies were a ready-made, natural highway without obstacles such as heavy forest or extensive rock. Gradually, the Red River cart trails between fur trading posts became regular routes. If a trail became too deeply rutted, the simple solution was to start a new trail beside it. On some busy routes, as many as 20 sets of ruts ambled side by side to the horizon.

The first main cart trail ran from the Red River colony, founded in 1812, to St. Paul, Minnesota, head of navigation on the Mississippi. Later there were thousands of miles of cart trails criss-crossing the prairies, one 900 miles from Fort Garry to Fort Edmonton via Fort Ellice on the Assiniboine and Fort Carlton on the North Saskatchewan. Another ran south from Fort Carlton through what now is Saskatoon to the U.S. outpost at Fort Benton on the Missouri, the Mounties' main supply centre after 274 of them marched west from Pembina in 1874.

The chief memory of the early prairie trails seems not to have been ruts, sloughs and mosquitoes, but the noise of the Red River cart, a box on two wheels and made all of wood. Trains of 500 carts were not unusual and on a bison hunt the natives’ supply train might comprise 1,200 carts. Canadian poet Charles Mair was paymaster on a relief project cutting a winter road from Oak Point. 30 miles east of Winnipeg, to Lake of the Woods. Joseph James Hargrave in Red River (Montreal, 1871) quotes from letters by Mair about the Red River cart:

The creaking of the wheels is indescribable; it is like no sound you ever heard in all your life, and makes your blood run cold. To hear a thousand of those wheels all groaning and creaking on at one time is a sound never to be forgotten; it is simply hellish.

Jean d’Artigue (Six Years in the Canadian North-West. Toronto, 1882) was a member of the North West Mounted Police on its 1874 march when most of the force’s supplies were carried in Red River carts. Of the noise, he wrote:

A den of wild beasts cannot be compared with its hideousness. Combine all the discordant sounds ever heard in Ontario and they cannot produce anything so horrid as a train of Red River carts. At each turn of the wheel, they run up and down all the notes of the scale in one continuous screech, without sounding distinctly any note or giving one harmonious sound. And this unearthly discord is so loud that a train of carts coming towards you can be heard long before they arc seen.

But there was a pleasant side to prairie travel, as described by Peter Mitchell in The West and North-West, published in Montreal in 1880:

I arrived at Portage la Prairie [from Winnipeg] by horse teams in the short space of seven hours — a distance of 65 miles as the crow flies, but as travelled with all the prairie turnings and twistings increased by at least six or eight miles. That was only about one hour longer than it took us to travel on the Pembina Branch Railway, a distance of 62 miles. The roads were simply perfection, the surface was smooth and you could select your own track. When the beaten track did not suit you, you could take the grass of the prairie, and you could drive anywhere except where, as occasionally happened, it was swampy.

As for winter, L.O. Armstrong recorded in his 1880 book, Southern Manitoba and Turtle Mountain Country, that he and several colleagues scouted the land by fitting a large box on runners and using it as a mobile horse-drawn home. John Macoun in his 1882 encyclopedic work, Manitoba and The Great North-West, found that the greatest disadvantage for the prairie traveller was the thunderstorm which blew down tents and stampeded the horses.


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