Canada’s national highway didn’t come easy – it took some daredevils and squabbling to make it happen
There are few physical symbols of our country’s unity greater than the Trans-Canada Highway. It’s more than 7,700 kilometres of asphalt that links every province to each other. Like Canada itself, it’s always beautiful, sometimes dramatic and occasionally tragic. It’s more than just a road – it’s Canada’s connector. Today, I hope to finally reach the western end of the highway in Victoria, after driving from St. John’s since early June. It has been a simple road trip. I didn’t even need a map. I just followed the signs for the Trans-Canada and headed toward the sunset.
Mark Richardson is driving the length of the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John’s to Victoria. This is his third report of a seven-part series.
I’ve met such interesting people along the way. Joe Roberts at his home in Badger, N.L., who delivered gravel to build the road in the 1960s, and who walked the Newfoundland portion four times to raise money for the Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre in St. John’s. Howard Gibbs, who lives in a trailer beside his derelict gas station in Southern Ontario. Gerald Stone, who lost his parents to a fiery crash on the highway near his home in New Brunswick. Chris Bauck, the mayor of a small town that is actually situated between the eastbound and westbound lanes of the Trans-Canada in Saskatchewan. All of them with vital lives well lived, tied intrinsically to the highway.
All I had to do was press the start button and steer the car down the road, but it hasn’t always been so easy. The Trans-Canada opened in 1962 and at the time, many parts of it were still “an endless succession of iron-surfaced washboard, gaping potholes and naked rock – a shoulder-twisting, neck-snapping, dust-shrouded horror,” according to Saskatchewan novelist Edward McCourt, who drove the highway with his wife Margaret the following summer for his book The Road Across Canada.
The road we now take for granted was built after decades of squabbling between the provinces and the federal government, as detailed by David Monaghan in his 1996 thesis Canada’s New Main Street. It was first announced by the newly formed Canadian Highway Association in 1912, when its directors gathered several hundred supporters at Alberni, on Vancouver Island, to plant a road sign that marked the western end of the highway. “The end will not be reached until a similar landmark adorns the shore of the province of Nova Scotia, eastward 4,000 miles by continuous road across the Dominion of Canada,” declared the Victoria Daily Times.
There was bad blood, however, between Alberni and its upstart neighbour Port Alberni, which was already the site of the most westerly terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The new town, Port Alberni, told the Daily Times it sent no representatives to the meeting “because they were too busy making money.”
Instead, somebody went to Alberni that night and stole the signpost, replanting it near the CPR terminal. When it was returned with apologies by the mayor of Port Alberni, a fierce-looking bull terrier was tied to it for protection.
That same year, newspapers reported Victoria businessman Albert Todd, a founding director of the Canadian Highway Association, offered a medal to the first person to drive across Canada from coast to coast. British journalist Thomas Wilby immediately took up the challenge and persuaded the REO Motor Car Co., which had a plant in St. Catharines, Ont., to provide him with sponsorship and a touring car to make the journey; he also persuaded REO to provide him with a chauffeur to do the actual driving and all the grunt work.
The “chauffeur” was REO’s head mechanic, Jack Haney. When the two met in Halifax, and Wilby made it clear he expected Haney to double as his valet, the two men immediately despised each other. Their mutual distaste is apparent in the diary Haney kept at the time: “I am heartily sick of my companion and will be mightily glad when the trip is over,” he wrote after just a few days. “He is too damn selfish.”
Even so, they stuck with the drive until they reached Victoria 53 days later. Much of the country had no roads, only cart tracks across the fields for horses and carts or buggies, if anything, and there were few maps. Haney drove the REO up hills backward, to not drain the gravity-fed gasoline line; he twisted and repaired the driveshaft whenever the wheels were strained by thick gumbo; he dug the car out of mudholes and swamps while Wilby scribbled in his notebook. Haney even drove at a crawl on a bumpy railway track beside the Fraser Canyon when the car’s kerosene lights failed in pitch darkness – a local guide lay on the running board with a lamp while all three men prepared to leap into the river if a train appeared.
At the end of the journey, Wilby received all the praise at banquets and receptions and, when he wrote his heroic account of the adventure in A Motor Tour Through Canada, Wilby never mentioned his driver by name, referring to him just four times and then only as “the chauffeur.”
Wilby did not win the Todd Medal, though – the car had been loaded onto a ship to cross Lake Superior, and had to divert into the United States for a short distance through the Rockies.
Nor did Perry Doolittle, the eventual founder of what would later become the Canadian Automobile Association, win the medal when he drove across Canada in 1925 in a Model-T Ford. Doolittle registered his car as a train and switched to railway wheels on some parts of the journey so the Ford could drive on railway tracks where there was no road.
It took until 1946 before the Todd Medal was finally awarded, once the final stretch of gravel road was completed between Hearst and Geraldton in Northern Ontario. It was presented to Alex Macfarlane of St. Catharines, Ont., a retired brigadier who drove from Louisbourg, N.S., to Victoria in nine days with his friend Ken MacGillivray, the former city editor of The Globe and Mail. It was an uneventful drive with just two flat tires. As Edward McCourt wrote later, “it is safe to say that [they] won the medal by default – no one was interested in competing for it.”
No politician was interested in paying for a Trans-Canada Highway, either. Responsibility for road construction fell on the individual provinces, because when the British North America Act of 1867 laid out who paid for what, only the railway was considered national transportation. Roads were just local connections between towns and markets. The federal government had to cajole the provinces into upgrading existing roads to a national standard of highway construction.
Six years of haggling followed the introduction of the 1949 Act to Encourage and to Assist in the Construction of a Trans-Canada Highway. Originally, the feds agreed to pay 50/50 for all highway improved or built on provincial land, and 100 per cent for anything in a national park. In the end, Ottawa paid 90/10 for the challenging stretches, and for most of the paving of the Newfoundland segment. “The Gap” that follows the north shore of Lake Superior was officially completed in 1960, and the Rogers Pass through the Selkirk Mountains, west of the Rockies, in 1962. Newfoundland finished paving in 1965.
Today, it’s a beautiful drive of about 7,700 kilometres along its shortest distance between St. John’s and Victoria, which links all 10 provinces. (Somewhat confusingly, perhaps, other highways are also designated part of the Trans-Canada, including the Ontario roads through Kapuskasing and Rainy River, and the Yellowhead Highway from Winnipeg to Prince Rupert, and they carry different highway numbers from the main Highway 1. All told, the main route and the secondary parallel highways total about 13,000 kilometres.)
If you were willing to drive more than a thousand kilometres a day, and not stop for anything other than sleep and absolute necessities, you could probably drive the main part of the route in about a week. Sometimes, it can be boring when the landscape never seems to change, and always, there’s the potential for danger just a split-second away. It’s just another strip of asphalt across the land.
Except it’s not. It’s the Trans-Canada Highway, and it’s the clearest proof we have that anyone can drive, cycle, roll or walk from any province to any other province. It’s a physical, tangible connector for the country, and we need it now more than ever.
Mark Richardson is the author of Canada’s Road: A journey on the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John’s to Victoria (Dundurn
Read more in this series:
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that the Rogers Pass cuts through the Rockies. In fact, it goes through the Selkirk Mountains. This version has been corrected.
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