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e History of Roads
and Road Building
in Ontario
e History of Roads
and Road Building
in Ontario
Sponsored by Ontario Road
Builders Association
Author’s Note
Roads and Transportation in Upper
Canada Before 1800
Early Roads and Transportation
Road Building in the 1700s
e First Road Crews: Labour and Statute Labour
John Graves Simcoe and the Military Roads
e First Road Builders
Asa Danforth
Post Roads
Steamships to Steam Engines:
H²O Highways and the Rail Roads
Colonel By and the Rideau Canal
e Trent-Severn Waterway
e Welland Canal
e Steamships
Road Builders and the Segwun
e New Iron Highways
Roads and Road Building in Nineteenth Century Ontario
Building Roads in the 1800s
Road Building Becomes a Science
Canada Invents Plank Roads
Plenty of Pavement Choices
John Talbot and the Talbot Road
e Huron Road
e Toronto-Sydenham Road
e Colonization Roads
e Addington Road and Madawaska Bridge
e Toll Gate
Building Bridges
Reinforced Concrete Competes With Steel
Some Came Tumbling Down
Highways for the Motor Car (1900–29)
e Good Roads Movement
A New Department for Highways
Ontario Road Builders Unite
Prot and Protectionism
Daily Commercial News
Ontarios First Concrete Highway
Asphalt Pavements Come of Age
e Ferguson Highway
Companies and Contractors (1887–1919)
1882: Walker Brothers Industries
1897: Bermingham Construction
1890s: Hacquoil Construction Limited
1900: A. Cope & Sons Limited (Cope Construction Ltd., 1978)
1902: Warren Bituminous Paving Company Limited (Warren
Paving & Materials Ltd., 1979)
1903: John Ganey Construction Co. Limited
1904: L.J. Looby, Contractor (Looby Construction Ltd.)
1907: Stacey Electric Company Limited
1912: Duerin Construction Company) (originally Franceschini Construction
1917: A.E. Jupp Construction Company
1917: W.D. LaFlamme Limited (Bot Construction
and David S. LaFlamme Construction)
1918: McGinnis & O’Connor Limited
(e Cruickshank Group)
1910s: Law Construction Co. Limited
1910s: Standard Industries Limited
Companies and Contractors (1920–29)
1920: Curran & Briggs Limited (originally Curran & Clement)
1921: Black & McDonald Limited
1926: e Murray Group Limited
1927: Campbell Construction Co. (George Campbell
Company Ltd., 1946)
1927: E&E Seegmiller Limited
1928: W.W. King Engineering and Contracting
(King Paving & Materials)
1929: Armstrong Brothers Company (Armbro, 1972,
Aecon, 1987)
1929: Canada Paving and Supply Corporation Limited
1929: Greenwood Construction Co. Limited
1920s: McNamara Corporation
Steam to Diesel to Hydraulics
A Game Changer
R.G. LeTourneau
Golden Age Equipment
Bigger Crawler Tractors
Made in Ontario
e Iron Dealers
Collecting the Rent
Going Once, Going Twice, Sold
The Great Depression and World War II (1930–49)
Muskeg, Mountains, and Mosquitos: Building the Alaska
e Queen Elizabeth Way and the Rainbow Bridge
e ousand Islands Bridge(s)
Companies and Contractors (1930–44)
1930s: Dibblee Construction Limited
1930s: Lamothe, a division of Sintra Inc.
1933: Smiths Construction
1937: H.J. McFarland Construction Co. Limited
1938: Dagmar Construction Inc.
1938: Lavis Contracting Co. Limited
1938: Pioneer Construction Inc.
1939: Leo Alarie & Sons Limited (Aecon Group)
1942: C.A. Pitts Engineering Limited
1942: Labelle Brothers (M.J. Labelle Co. Ltd, 1955)
Companies and Contractors (1945–49)
1946: Cox Construction Limited
1946: K.J. Beamish Construction Co. Limited
1946: Miller Paving Limited (also McAsphalt Industries
Ltd., 1969)
1946: Owen King Limited
1947: McLean Construction (McLean Taylor
Construction Ltd.)
1948: Huron Construction Co. Limited (e Miller Group)
1949: Cornwall Gravel Company Limited
1949: Fowler Construction Company Limited
1949: S. McNally & Sons (McNally Construction Inc. and
C&M McNally Engineering Corp., 1979)
1940s: Harnden & King Limited
1940s: Hurdman Paving
1940s: Peter Kiewit Sons Co.
Other Contractors from the Forties and Fifties
Roads and
Transportation in
Upper Canada
Before 1800
efore the New World was “discovered” by Europeans in the seventeenth century and recog-
nized for its commercial potential, Ontario wasnt a part of any new world at all. For at least
12,000 years the dense deciduous and pine forests and pristine lakes and rivers of Ontario
were home to Aboriginal people. ey took their living from the forests and lakes and they spread
throughout Ontario on the waterways. ey moved on land between hunting grounds and water
access points on networks of centuries-old forest trails, and they established their settlements at
the intersections of their trails.
The first European
settlers in Ontario
arrived to find a land
of lakes and forests —
over 71 million hectares
from the deciduous
hardwoods in the south
to the coniferous boreal
regions of the north.
Many dierent Native nations inhabited their own parts of the province in the 1600s and
when exploitation of its natural resources got underway on a major scale. In the southern parts, the
Iroquois Nation, which had migrated north from its traditional lands in New York State, inhab-
ited areas around Lake Simcoe and north. It included the Hurons, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga,
Cayuga, and the Seneca. e Algonkian natives that became the Six Nations included the Cree,
Ojibwa, and Algonquin peoples. Native people also travelled deep into the north of Ontario to settle
in places where some still dwell today and which modern civilization has still not quite reached.
en the Europeans came, rst the French and later the British, who coveted the virtual ne fur
factory that Ontario represented, just as a modern producer of aggregates would covet a licensed
quarry with an endless supply of stone. e native furs — beaver was the Cadillac of the fur trade,
but bear, sea otter, ermine, and deer pelts were also prized in Europe — were worth a small fortune
and became symbols of wealth and entitlement on the streets of Paris and London. e commercial
potential of the province to Europeans was so valued that wars and local battles were fought o and
on for over 100 years before the British nally established control of what would become Ontario
under the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
e Europeans brought common manufactured goods with them to trade with the natives for
their furs. ey also set the province on an irreversible new course that would change life for the
Aboriginal people in ways they could not imagine at the time. e new tools, iron axe heads, brass
kettles, factory-made blankets, and many other simple products cheaply pumped out of industri-
alized European factories had huge impacts on Aboriginal life and culture, some positive and most
not very positive at all. Disease was one of the things Europeans brought with them, viruses to
which the natives had never been exposed, and the death toll was enormous.
Before the European
settlers arrived, Ontario
was home to Aboriginal
nations that hunted,
fished, and foraged
for food.
A fur trader’s cabin.
the U.S. and settled in southern Ontario following
the American Revolutionary War, which ended in
1783. About 9,000 loyalists had come to nd a new
life in Upper Canada by 1784.
A group of the rst loyalists came from the
eastern American states to Montreal and made their
way by barge and portage along the St. Lawrence
River to settle along the river between Montreal and
Kingston. e latter, called Cataraqui at the time by
the Mississauga First Nations who had rst settled
there, was a prime beneciary of the inux of loyal
and it quickly became the major military and eco-
nomic centre of Upper Canada at the time. Cataraqui
had the highest population in Upper Canada until
the 1840s. It was also the rst settlement surveyed in
Upper Canada. Under the direction of Surveyor-
General Major Samuel Holland, deputy John Collins
divided up the lands west of old Fort Frontenac into
townships of 175 lots of 120 acres each, with allow-
ances for roads. e rst major section of road in
eastern Ontario was built in 1783 between Cataraqui
and Bath to the west.
Another inux of loyalists crossed the border at
Niagara Falls and Fort Erie to establish a settlement
at Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) and spread across
the Niagara Peninsula. ey built their rst road
Newark to Ancaster in 1785. A third wave of loyal-
ists and some early settlers from Europe chose not to
proceed along the St. Lawrence River to the Great
Lakes water system, choosing rather to branch o to
begin settling another major water artery, the Ottawa River. By about 1800 they had established
a settlement at the current site of the city of Ottawa and were pushing further up the Ottawa River,
the feeder rivers of which were gateways to the North and transport routes for the timber trade
that would dominate the early history of the Ottawa Valley.
Until 1791, what we know as Ontario today was all just part of the British holdings in North
America. It ocially became a geographic entity in that year by an Act of British Parliament that
created two provinces. Lower Canada represented the modern-day province of Quebec. Most of
its settlers were descendants of the original French explorers who began to colonize the area in the
early 1600s. Upper Canada would later be called Ontario, but at the time the map did not include
vast territories of the northern and western parts of the modern Ontario. Educated estimates put
the population of the province at about 6,000 in 1783, growing to 14,000 in 1791, and reaching
44,000 by 1806.
While the fur trade continued to fuel settlement and territorial expansion in Upper Canada in
the mid-1700s, there was a growing demand in Europe for wood products, especially to support the
shipbuilding business in England. e homeland was constantly at war with one nation or another
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and at the same time as they were losing a lot of ships
in battle, their traditional sources of lumber in Eastern Europe were drying up. It was only natural
that forestry would become an economic mainstay in a colony virtually covered in thick forest but
Fresh beaver and other
pelts are packaged and
waiting for shipment in
the stock room at a
remote trading post.
for the myriad of connecting lakes and rivers that provided the means of moving timber from the
woodlot to market. e rst settlements were developed along the major water routes, and a saw-
mill was usually one of the rst commercial establishments in a new settlement, after a grist mill
and along with a general store and a post oce. e timber trade grew steadily and did eventually
become the number one economic engine of Upper Canada as the demand for fur began to decline
in the early 1800s.
Early Roads and Transportation
e Europeans found the water transportation routes established by the Native peoples centuries
ago — navigating the rivers and lakes by canoe in the summer and following the frozen waterways
in the winter — to be practical and eective, so they set up their communities on the shores of the
water highways and continued to embrace the mode in settling the province. Water was not only
the best way to travel and move heavy goods and timber in the 1700s — it was virtually the only
way. In a province where six percent of the territory consisted of networks of rivers and over 250,000
lakes, initially there was little need for land roads.
e St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes, and Ottawa River were the superhighways of the system,
which explains the patterns of early settlement in Upper Canada with major settlements along
those water routes. From Niagara, water routes took the Natives and early European explorers to
Lake Erie via the Niagara River, leading to establishment of communities at centres such as Port
Colborne, Port Dover, and Port Stanley along that lake. Spotty settlement then continued on to
Ontario’s lakes and
rivers were the primary
means of transportation
for first the Aboriginal
nations, and then the
fur traders and early
European pioneers. The
province has more than
250,000 lakes, nearly
4,000 greater than
three square kilometres
in size.
Amherstburg at the entrance to the Detroit River and then Windsor at the other end. Windsor
was an early economic powerhouse, situated as it is directly across the river from Detroit, which was
an important American economic hub at the time. e route then traversed Lake St. Clair and on
to a settlement at Sarnia where the St. Clair River meets Lake Huron. Continuing up the east coast
of Lake Huron to the Bruce Peninsula and into Georgian Bay, early settlements were established
at places like Goderich and Port Elgin. Posts in Georgian Bay were an ideal gateway to lands further
north and west.
Early settlers also adopted most of the Aboriginal ways of travel. For centuries they had travelled
by canoe in the water or by foot on land, using well-established trails to move between hunting
grounds and water access points and later to enable their fur-trading activities. For winter travel
on land and on the frozen waterways, the Native peoples had developed snowshoes to get around
on foot in the snow and toboggans, pulled by dogs, to move their belongings. Early settlers fol-
lowed suit. Dogs as pack animals were invaluable to Native land travel, and Natives would not
shift to horses until the 1700s, when those animals were introduced by Europeans. e ox was the
beast of burden for the early settlers, and later horses when they became available. Sleighs became
the common conveyance for people to travel in the winter over the ice roads and frozen waterways,
as well as to move timber from the bush.
e Native peoples had created many paths through the forests to linking water access points,
and these also served the early trappers and fur traders. Notably, there was an inland network of
paths and trails stretching from Montreal to the Niagara Peninsula. Far from being simply a col-
lection of random paths, collectively Native trails represented a practical network of interconnected
major “roads” connecting water access points and settlements, and arteries that served the Native
way of life and travel well.
e Native roads were little more than footpaths through the bush where the vegetation had
been beaten down and eliminated over time, and perhaps some direct obstacles removed from time
The canoe was perfectly
suited to travelling long
distances on Ontario’s
network of lakes and
connecting rivers. Early
fur traders readily
adopted the traditional
Native mode of travel.
to time — generally only wide enough for human single-le passage. Heavily travelled trails were
regularly worn six inches or more below grade, some up to a foot deep. Early settlers on horseback
often used these Native trails in the absence of any other land conveyance, spawning the term “bridle
path” because they were just wide enough to accommodate a horse and rider.
But for early settlers in the 1700s who brought their horses, oxen, and wagons, the journey to
their new homesteads couldnt be made exclusively on the water routes. e last leg over land was
always an arduous and dangerous ordeal that meant somehow transporting by land all of the worldly
goods and supplies they would need to survive the winter. Invariably that meant hacking new trails
in the dense bush and days on end searching for a way to get across a river or stream in their path.
e rst family to settle the Ottawa area was the Billings family. In 1813, Lamira Billings, the
family matriarch, described her journey as a new bride from the village of Merrickville to Glouces
Following are excerpts from her recollections of the trip, which at the time could not be accom-
plished on land:
On the 24th (October, 1813) started the move to Gloucester, came 9 miles and was
detained by the rain. 26th we started in a bark canoe, our loading consisted of Mr.
Billings and a Frenchman and myself, 6 chairs, one trunk and a bed and a bundle of
bedclothes. We went 18 miles and camped in an old shanty — it had a door, no window,
no chimney but a large hole for each. e next morning it rained till 4 in the afternoon
then we started and went 4 miles and came to another shanty of the very same kind.
Remained that night, the 28th we started again and we found the water so shallow that
the canoe would not swim; the men had to unload and carry the things on their backs
some distance and then carry the canoe and load again. ree dierent times they had to
load and unload again before we reached home 9 miles … and when we arrived, it was
Footpaths in the forest
were the first roads in
Ontario. The Aboriginal
nations developed a
network over thousands
of years, and some
went for hundreds of
Street, Yonge Street, and the road to York, where contract labour was used. e Rangers were
formed in the United States by John Butler in 1777 as a militia of irregulars that took part in many
bloody battles on behalf of the British. After the group was disbanded in 1774, many of the Rangers
stayed together and came to Upper Canada to live.
Post Roads
In support of Simcoes obsession with moving the provincial capital of Upper Canada to London,
which he never abandoned even after Dorchester made him locate it in York in 1793, he also estab-
lished a post road from Burlington Bay to the ames River, at the current city of Woodstock.
Post roads were common in early Upper Canada. e road between Kingston and Montreal
was a post road, as was Simcoes Dundas Street. Post roads were simply roads that featured a regular
line of “post houses” along their route where travellers could eat, rest, and change horses and vehi-
cles for the next leg of their trip. Like the toll roads to follow, post houses were operated by the
private sector, in much the same manner as highway rest stops are run in twenty-rst-century
Ontario. e “post master” had exclusive rights to supply and charge for carriages but was obligated
under the threat of penalty to have conveyances ready when they were demanded. Each post mas-
ter had to have a specied number of carriages and would often have subcontractors called “aides
de posto” to provide additional ones if they were needed. It being a for-prot business, travellers of
the day would complain that the quality of the carriages kept by the post master was questionable,
and they were often wanting of repair.
e post roads enabled the introduction of the stagecoach to Upper Canada, now making it
possible for the common traveller to take longer, multi-day trips by land that would previously have
been virtually impossible.
Steamships to
Steam Engines:
O Highways and
the Rail Roads
s Upper Canadians awoke to the nineteenth century, roads were barely a blip on the radar
as infrastructure needed to further support the settlement and economic development of
Upper Canada. As settlement necessarily pressed inland, the need for roads to serve local
needs and to connect settlements was established, but their development was still a slow and ago-
nizing one. e British Parliament was far more interested in continuing to improve water routes
to support far north fur trading prots and the growing timber trade along the St. Lawrence and
Ottawa River routes than in how settlers were to get grain to the mill or their children to school.
So in the early 1800s, London embarked on an ambitious strategy to build canals in Upper
Canada, signalling that for the foreseeable future transportation would continue to be water-based
and the development of land roads would continue to be a distant afterthought, although in the
broader sense of the denition of roads, the canals were the roadways of the day. In 1832, govern-
ment loans and debentures for the Burlington and Desjardins Canals and Cobourg harbour alone
were £10,478. For roads they were able to nd but £75. Adding to the British indierence to roads
development was that by the mid-1800s the threat of attack from the United States or foreign
powers was greatly diminished, and military roads were not the priority they were 50 years earlier.
e canals were built to provide continuous water connections between the major settled areas
of Upper Canada on the main water routes, and they were ideal for developing steamboat travel on
the inland waterways. By extension, the canals became commercial corridors along which settle-
ment could and did occur. Despite the subdued threat of war from the U.S., the canals were also
built to serve the same purposes as the military roads — as secure supply lines and for troop move-
ment. e fascination with canals was not limited to Upper Ontario, which embarked on a urry
of construction between about 1824 and the latter part of the century. Lower Canada was building
canals, too, as were the Maritimes.
Even before the British government launched its canal expansion strategy, explorers and fur
traders were building crude early versions of them to connect waterways and bypass rapids. Gov-
ernor Haldimand had ordered a small section of locks at the rapids in the Soulanges section of the
St. Lawrence River as early as 1779. In 1819, the North West Company engineered a rudimentary
lock to manage the rapids on the St. Mary’s River, which allowed it to push its western explorations
forward from Lake Superior. ree early canals were built (1819–34) on the Ottawa River. en
came the government money for canals and the engineering masterpiece of the day, the Rideau
Canal, completed in 1832 by Colonel By and the British military to connect Ottawa by inland
waterways to Kingston. Smaller canals were completed at Cornwall and Williamsburg to manage
sections of rapids on the St. Lawrence between Lake Saint-Louis and Lake Ontario.
In 1895, the rapids at Sault Ste. Marie were tamed for shipping north into Lake Superior,
with completion of the locks at the Sault that operated in conjunction with four locks on the
American side.
Colonel By and the Rideau Canal
Like most other early roads, whether land or water-based, the Rideau Canal was envisioned rst
and foremost as a military defense after the War of 1812 to maintain the vital links between Mon-
treal and Kingston should the Americans threaten the province from the St. Lawrence River. Work
started on the canal in 1826, and when it was completed six years later the Royal coers were lighter
in the amount of ₤822,000. e Rideau Canal was also an important commercial corridor until
1849, when the rapids on the St. Lawrence River had all been conquered by locks and provided a
more direct route. e Rideau Canal delivered tens of thousands of immigrants to their new set-
tlements in the interior of Eastern Ontario and allowed movement of timber and grain from the
farms and forests to Kingston and Montreal.
In February 1817, the lieutenant governor posted a tender advertisement in several of the larger
Upper Canada daily newspapers. It called for design and construction of a canal system and asked
for proposals to build a navigable water route from Kingston to Ottawa, for “opening the commu-
nication in the direction of the Rideau Lake, and the waters communicating from thence to Mud
Lake [Newboro Lake] and from thence to Kingston. No bids were received. Perhaps the project
was seen as too risky by the contractors of the day and/or their nancial backers. Another likely
reason is the fact that commercial interests were more focussed on the St. Lawrence River systems
as the preferred choice for shipping.
In 1825 the job of designing and building the Rideau Canal was given to British Colonel John
By, who had done his military service with the Royal Engineers. e colonel has earned legendary
status in engineering history for managing to complete a project many believed impossible. It
stands as the most impressive civil engineering and construction project of its time: a continuous
water superhighway running 202 km (125 miles) through forests, swamp, and the hard granites
of the Canadian Shield, with 52 dams and 47 masonry locks.
Colonel By had retired early from his military career with the Royal Engineers and was enjoy-
ing a nice pension in England when he got the call back to active duty to take charge of the Rideau
Canal project. We arent sure how he felt about being roused from a life of leisure to build a canal
in the backwoods of the colony, but the next year he landed in Quebec City. He soon moved to
The Rideau Canal was
an engineering marvel
when it was built in the
early 1800s. Today it
is a major Ottawa
tourist attraction and
recreational water
waterway until over 100 years later. In 1884, the Murray Canal was built at Trenton to make the
short, direct link between the Bay of Quinte and the western shore of Lake Ontario.
Construction began in the Kawartha Lakes region in 1833 with the lock at Bobcaygeon. Despite
its protracted development, as it progressed the Trent-Severn Waterway it did serve the timber trade
and provide economic stimulus along its route. But by the time one could nally pass continuously
through the waterway from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay in 1920 any serious opportunities as an
economic corridor had long since passed it by. Not only did the railways snatch up those opportuni-
ties along the way, but the beginnings of a road-based highway system were also developing in Ontario
e Trent-Severn was obsolete as an economic driver before it ever became a signicant one,
especially with completion of the Welland Canal in 1932. Today the waterway serves the province
as a 386-km recreational waterway, with about 32 km of built channels, 44 locks, 39 swing bridges,
and 160 control dams. e various locks and dams along its route are also important for the local
generation of hydroelectricity.
The Welland Canal
e Welland Canal proved over time to be the most important and most successful of the continu-
ous waterway routes created in the 1800s in terms of improving shipping through the Great Lakes
system and providing local economic stimulus in the Niagara Peninsula. ere have been four
Welland Canals over the past 180 years, each successively rening the original route, reducing the
The Kingston harbour
and waterfront
is depicted in an
engraving from
about 1850.
A drawbridge on the
modern-day Welland
number of locks and enlarging them in response to the continually increasing size of the cargo
vessels that used them.
e rst Welland Canal was built between 1824 and 1829 by William Hamilton Merrick
bypass Niagara Falls. It ran 27 miles (44 km) between Port Weller on Lake Ontario and Port
on Lake Erie, and the canal virtually replaced the Old Portage land route between
Queenston and Chippawa. Merrick’s Welland Canal Co. operated the system of locks as a toll road
for cargo ships but found the maintenance costs made it a shaky business proposition, and owner-
ship was purchased by the government in 1841. e economic power of the new waterway detour
around Niagara Falls was proven quickly with the development of inland towns and cities along
its route. Mills were built near the locks and signicant industrial development occurred in towns
like Welland, orold, Merritton, Port Colborne, and Port Robinson.
Two further reconstructions of the canal took place in 1845 and 1872–91 before the fourth and
the current Welland Canal was completed in 1932, nally bringing it to world-class standards
and establishing it as one of the most successful commercial waterways in the world. e canal now
runs 27 miles (43.4 km) from Port Weller to Port Colborne. It has eight ship locks, each 80 feet
(24.4 m) wide and 766 feet (233.5 m) long and with a depth of 25.8 feet (7.6 m).
Between 1967 and 1978, over 50 million cubic yards of earth were excavated and removed to
create a Welland By-Pass. Part of that project to relieve the impact of the canal bridges on the city
included construction of two car/rail tunnels underneath the canal bypass.
The Steamships
e steamships of the 1800s were to the water transportation routes and canal systems what cars
and trucks are to paved highways today. e canals were built as their dedicated highways to the
interior and the rst steamship — the Frontenac — appeared on Lake Ontario in 1816. e rst
steamer on the upper Ottawa River was the 25 horsepower Lady Colborne, built in 1833 for ser-
vice between Aylmer and Chats Falls. e introduction of the steamboat to Upper Canada further
cemented the waterways as the primary transportation mode of the time. ey could move heavy
cargoes not only on the Great Lakes but also on the inland rivers and canals. e steamships oered
a much-improved way of moving people, too, making the journey for new settlers much easier than
a land excursion if they could aord it.
In the mid-1800s the Colonization Roads and consequent new settlements provided the gate-
way to the jumping-o points for the North from centres like Gravenhurst and Bracebridge. ere
were no roads leading deeper into the new territories, and the steamships were the only way to
travel further north. e steamships were not only the lifeline for settlers, but later in the 1880s
became the method of conveyance for well-to-do Americans and Ontario city folk who could
aord to summer in the wilds of the North. eir wilderness adventure vacations were often com-
plete with all of the comforts and luxuries of home at the grand resorts like Windermere and
Cleveland’s House that were developed along the water routes.
e rst steamship to leave a wake in the waters of Lake Simcoe was a small one built by a
partnership of estate owners at Kempenfeldt Bay at Holland Landing and launched in 1832. e
Sir John Colborne immediately lled a demand for transporting freight and people around Lake
Simcoe, but was not able to progress further into the system because it drew too much water to
get through the narrows to Lake Couchiching. e next steamer built to handle commercial trac
on Lake Simcoe was the Peter Robinson, and this time the builders made sure it would be able to
navigate the narrows.
In the same year as the rst steamer put into Lake Simcoe, in 1832 the rst small steamer —
the Penetanguishene — ran between the military settlement there to Coldwater. Early steamers on
Georgian Bay in the 1840s were stationed at Penetanguishene to serve military purposes, but by
1855 steamships were making regular runs between Collingwood and Owen Sound.
Road Builders and the Segwun
An interesting footnote to the history of Ontario road builders is their contribution to the preser-
vation of the history of steamboats as the rst methods of transport in the North and other parts
of the province. Between 1973 and 1981 the Ontario Road Builders’ Association (ORBA) saved
the Royal Mail Steamship Segwun, the only vessel of her type still aoat and operating under steam
in North America. At 2011 ceremonies marking the 30th anniversary of the Segwuns return
to service, local historian and steamship expert Richard Tatley suggested the road builders help to
preserve steamship history to assuage guilt about their roads bringing an end to an era where steam-
ships were the primary mode of transportation in the Muskoka area — a notion the road builders
suggest is more romantic legend than truth.
“By acting as corporate sponsors of the restoration and seeing it through to a successful com-
pletion, your organization saved a priceless piece of Canada from oblivion and made it possible for
present-day patrons to experience once again the delights of steamship travel on the beautiful
Muskoka lakes in old-time style,Tatley told the road builders’ representatives at the ceremonies,
in presenting an original watercolour of the venerable old steamship to ORBA president Tom
O’Callaghan of Fowler Construction.
e Segwun was built in 1887 as a side-wheeler and was rst called the Nipissing. It operated for
over 90 years before it was almost sold for scrap in 1962. In 1969, the drive to restore the Segwun
The Royal Mail
Steamship Segwun
(left) was reconditioned
by the Ontario Road
Builders’ Association,
and when it returned to
service as a tourist
attraction in the 1980s,
it was the only vessel
of its type in North
America operating
under steam power.
was red up by John Coulter, a marine engineer with a passion for the project. ere was no money,
though, until Bill Cole, then a director of the road builders’ association from C.A. Pitts Ltd., got
involved and raised $24,000 of seed money from ORBA members to kick-start the work. Later,
ORBA president Glen Coates of Fowler Construction took over leadership of the project for the
road builders. It cost $250,000 to rebuild the hull, and in the summer of 1974 Prime Minister
Pierre Trudeau christened the Segwuns return to the water at the Gravenhurst docks.
ere was a lot more work left to do, however, more than anyone had imagined, and by the
time the steam engines had been rebuilt and the interior renovated, the total cost was $1.1 million.
Work progressed slowly because the road builders had to raise the funds from their member com-
panies, and the price tag just kept getting bigger and bigger. e Ontario government came through
with $250,000, and the rest was nanced by the road builders. By 1985, though, the Segwun was
plying the Muskoka waterways once again as a premier tourist attraction in the area.
The New Iron Highways
e railways changed everything. ey burst on the Ontario transportation scene in the mid-1800s,
grew fast and furiously, and created a revolution in both freight and passenger transport, essentially
leading the shift from water to land for inland transportation. e rst Ontario railway made
its maiden run from Toronto to Machells Corners (Aurora) on May 16, 1853 — met by cheer-
Rapid expansion of the
railways in Ontario after
1850 was the beginning
of the end for the
steamships and water-
ways as the province’s
primary mode of
ing throngs and reworks celebrations at each end. By 1856 the trains were operating on regular
schedules in the Montreal-to-Toronto corridor.
Ontarios earliest introduction to rail goes back to at least 1827, when the reader will recall
that Colonel By used wooden rail lines to haul stones from a quarry at Hogs Back Road for his
construction of the Rideau Canal. In 1839 there was a horse-powered tramway operating between
Queenston and Chippawa on the Niagara River. But the real rail revolution came with steam
and, beginning about 1850, over the next half century the railways would gradually replace water
transportation as the primary mode in Ontario.
Roads, which might have received more prominence as the need for inland transportation grew
in the 1800s, continued to be virtually ignored as the railways became solidly entrenched as the
preferred way to travel and transport freight over long distances on land. ey could carry anything
and as much of it as there was to carry, and the rail infrastructure to connect the major ports and
economic centres of the province came quickly. While the building of new highways suered initially
due to the limelight enjoyed by railways, as the trains began to connect major centres in the prov-
ince an interdependent relationship developed that has lasted to the modern day and has received
renewed attention in the early twenty-rst century. e railways could move things between major
points, but roads were needed to feed the rail lines in local areas.
As did the water highways before them, the railways led settlement and growth of communities
along their routes. In the case of the rst train to Aurora, author Elizabeth Willmot, in her book
The railway opened
up vast new tracts of
Ontario to timber and
mineral resources
and spawned new
settlements in its path.
railway was established to take it to shipping ports. In 1902 the Northern Ontario nally got some
attention from the provincial government, which could no longer ignore the importance of north-
ern development. By act of provincial parliament, in 1902 the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario
Railway Commission was created as a Crown corporation to develop the Ontario Northland Rail-
way. e railway started in North Bay and reached New Liskeard by 1905, Englehart a year later,
and Cochrane the year after that.
e Grand Trunk Railway was the rst railway heavyweight in the province. It was founded
in 1852 to build a main trunk line between Portland, Maine and Sarnia, Ontario, via Montreal
and Toronto. On its formation, the Grand Trunk assumed the rights to the Montreal & Kingston
Railway Company and the Kingston & Toronto Railway Company and completed the Montreal-
Toronto corridor by 1856. In the same year it opened a Toronto-Goderich line, through the
amalgamation of the ve regional railways and leasing the rights to two others. e Grand Trunk
also built lines between Guelph and Stratford in 1856, to St. Marys in 1858, and to Point Edward
in 1859.
ere were no obvious contenders to usurp the Grand Trunk’s dominance in Ontario
until the Canadian Pacic Railway came along in 1881. e CPR was established to build a trans-
continental railway, as much a political imperative to meet promises of uniting the new country
from sea to sea on Confederation as from its potential commercial opportunities.
Railway expansion in the second half of the 1800s led to signicant advances in related civil
infrastructure, in particular bridges strong enough to support them across longer spans. e Grand
Trunk constructed a bridge across the Niagara River between Fort Erie and Bualo, New York to
complete its Canada-U.S. rail connections, as well as the Victoria Bridge in 1860, which was the
rst to traverse the St. Lawrence River at Montreal.
Transportation policy and strategies in Ontario in the nineteenth century had little to do with
settlement in the province and everything to do with supporting the military and commercial inter-
ests of the time — the fur and timber trades in particular. e fact that settlement did follow new
transportation routes was a natural outcome, but it wasnt planned, and providing land roads to
support them was not part of the agenda. e rst half of the century is marked by expansion of
the water routes and building of canals to enhance them and the latter half by a wholesale shift to
land-based transport and reliance on railroads. Generally, developing communities were left to
their own roads, and that was limited to how much could be expected of individual settlers in terms
of funding and their labour.
But things were about to change again in the twentieth century. People would begin a lasting
love aair with the automobile, and Henry Ford would make it easy to own one. Governments
would no longer be able to ignore public demands for more and better roads.
Roads and Road
Building in the
Nineteenth Century
y the early 1800s, construction of roads had become imperative to connect major settlements
to neighbouring communities in Upper Canada by land and to facilitate settlement into
new areas without water access, although they didnt come as quickly as they should have
because nobody had yet come up with a good way to pay for them. e rst inux of immigrants
was the United Empire Loyalists from the United States after 1784 and into the early 1800s who
settled along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers and in the Niagara area. After Upper Canada was
created in 1791, connecting these groups of early settlements was a priority of early roads planning.
e next wave of new Ontarians was the European settlers escaping poor economies and hope-
less lives in their homelands in the early 1800s and looking for a chance at a better life in Upper
Canada. e population of Upper Canada tripled to 450,000 from 1825 to 1842, and then dou-
bled again to 952,000 by 1851. e early European settlers were about 60 percent Irish and the
rest were an even split between English and Scots, as well as a few from other countries like Poland
and Hungary. German settlers came to Southwestern Ontario very early in the century, following
a new road from Dundas to Waterloo County in their Conestoga wagons. Later, the appeal of the
New World would also attract settlers from other European homelands.
At a time when the wagons and carts used to travel on Upper Canadian roads came in almost
as many congurations as there were the settlers who built them, the Conestoga wagons used by
the German immigrants were the Cadillacs of the day. ey were built like boats, high on the sides
and low in the middle because that was how loads shifted on rough roads. e wagons were covered
with cloth on arched frames typical of the familiar covered wagons that opened up the American
west and could be up to 30 feet long, with large rear wheels more than ve feet in diameter. ey
could carry relatively enormous payloads of as much as eight tons when pulled by a team of six
good horses.
Upper Canadas local economies in the mid-1800s were mainly agricultural with the staple
being wheat. is gradually shifted to fruit and vegetables and dairy farming. People also started a
migration to the cities in the middle of the century, and as they did a new textile trade, the manu-
facturing of farm implements, and even some heavy industries provided the jobs. By the end of the
century, the railways had opened up new opportunities to the North, and the mining and natural
resource sectors ourished.
By 1821 there was a reasonable network of rudimentary roads connecting major parts of the
province, without considering the actual condition of those roads. The major ones in Upper
Canada at the time included:
Dundas Street from Dundas to London, passing through Woodstock.
e road extending Dundas Street from Dundas to York and then on to Kingston.
From Kingston an arterial road ran southwest into Fredericksburg, but the main highway
continued east along the bank of the St. Lawrence River to Vaudreuil. From Vaudreuil, a
branch road followed the Ottawa River west to Longueil.
Just east of the Kingston road, another road ran up to Gower Township on both sides of
the Rideau River, with branch roads to Perth and Brockville.
Talbot Road from Amherstburg at the western end of the province, along the north
shore of Lake Erie and linking to Dundas Street at Brantford, then continuing south to
Port Dover, and then east to Fort Erie.
A r
oad from Queenston west to Ancaster, crossing the Grand River at Port Dover, then
running southwest to Amherstburg.
e Richmond Road between Perth and Richmond.
Yonge Street from York to Holland Landing.
Other important post roads were created as they were made necessary by the inland migration
of settlers. One ran north from Brockville and Hurontario Road, providing a route from Port
The Conestoga wagon.
among their wandering household goods with a baby at her breast; a picture of forlorn,
dejected patience; the team of oxen crouching down mournfully in the mud, and breathing
forth such clouds of vapour from their mouths and nostrils that all the damp mist and fog
around seemed to have come direct from them.
Building a road in Ontario in the early 1800s was a pretty basic exercise. First the surveyors
went in and determined the path of the road, notching the trees on either side to mark it. ey went
into the bush with compasses and then started to improvise. Experience and intuition were their
tools when they needed to deal with rock outcrops or obstructions that were easier to go around
than through. On encountering a river or stream, sometimes a detour to a fordable spot made more
sense than to build a bridge to stay on course.
e surveyors rarely got the recognition they deserved but they arguably had the most dicult
jobs. ey were the toughest of the tough; experienced woodsmen who could withstand the rigours
of life in the wilderness. eir work usually took place in the dead of winter and early spring when
they could traverse the swamps and watercourses on foot. ey could be gone for months at a time,
living where they stopped for the night, hunting and foraging for food along the way.
After the surveyors came the men with axes to fell the trees on the marked path and crews of
men and oxen following behind them to clear the right of way. Stumps were removed with chains
where possible and left in the ground if not. Infrequently, the road builder would try to burn out
the larger stumps. at was pretty well all there was to building a new dirt road through the forest.
Early road workers
heating a tar-like
surfacing material in a
steam kettle and
placing it by hand.
McAdams roads started with layers of larger stone on the virgin base, and he concentrated on
the ner gradation sieves for the top course stone layer because it would improve compaction and
therefore water penetration. His system called for a repair program when early use of the road
showed imperfections. Not surprisingly, the maintenance aspect rarely occurred, so his pave-
ments were sometimes criticized for their lack of longevity when neglect, not poor design, was the
real culprit.
Nobody could dispute the superiority of a macadam pavement in the 1800s, but Ontario didnt
give them a serious look until near the end of the century and into the 1900s. Until motor vehicles
would make better roads imperative, macadam was too expensive. A main aspect of McAdams
system was his theory that steady trac after installation was necessary to compact the ne stone
surface course so it could serve its purpose as an impervious layer to keep water from migrating to
the base. In Ontario in the 1800s there was not nearly enough trac on the roads to achieve his
prescribed post-construction compaction.
McAdam also often used water as a binder for his roads, and later in the 1800s when bitumen-
based binders became available his road designs were improved further. Roads of McAdams basic
design that used bitumen binders were called “tarmacadam” roads, more familiar today as tarmac.
e rst one was laid in Paris, France, in 1854, using natural bituminous materials.
Canada also had its own roads guru in omas Roy, a civil engineer who published a paper in
1841 detailing how to design and built a good pavement. Roy was in the McAdam camp and on
the introduction of plank roads a few years earlier had argued that macadam roads would prove
the most cost-eective over the longer term. Roys theory on pavement selection was that unless
there were extenuating factors, the best pavement was the one that was the least expensive to build
and maintain. His work demonstrates some of the earliest attention to life cycle costs in the design
and construction of roads.
Roys emphasis on cost eciency showed many of the prevailing road building techniques to
be lacking. His ideal roads would use levelling stakes at close intervals to minimize excavations and
embankments and balance them as closely as possible, realizing the cost savings in managing these
aspects. Typical road allowances of the day were 66 feet wide, but Roy recommended that 48 feet
would be plenty; 38 feet for the road, ve feet for a drainage ditch on one side and ve feet for a
footpath on the other side. His research also showed that a longer-lasting road could be built by
making the centre of the road stronger than the sides because that was the part that took the worst
beating from the horses or oxen and the wagon wheels.
If one were to build a road the way Roy thought it should be built — with initial cost eciency
and long-term durability at top of mind — he gured it would cost between £220 and £280 per
mile, much more than most roads of the day cost to build but an investment he believed would
pay o in the long run.
Canada Invents Plank Roads
In the late 1830s Canadians developed an innovation in road building that quickly spread to the
United States. e “plank road” was constructed of sawed wooden planks up to four inches thick
laid across the road bed and attached with spikes to longitudinal stringers on both sides. Stringers
were sometimes also used on the bottom of the plank surface to provide extra stability where
the horses’ hooves and wagon wheels did the most damage. Drainage ditches were critical to the
technology, and the plank roads were covered with dirt or sand to improve friction and protect
the surface.
It’s generally believed that the relatively quick fall from grace of the plank roads related both
to growing competition from the railways and rising timber prices. It was also discovered that the
plank roads deteriorated quickly under the pounding of the horses’ hooves and beating from the
wagon wheels. After a year or two a plank road needed repair, and in that day there was no such
thing as a road maintenance program, so they just got worse until in the end most became unus-
able. ey were also susceptible to winter frosts that caused heaving and cracking of the planks.
People liked plank roads because they were innitely more comfortable and safer to ride on,
they were a lot easier on horses and wagons, and they made for a usable road in the summer and
fall when dirt and corduroy roads became impassable. A horse and carriage could do up to eight
miles an hour on a plank road, while two miles per hour was about all one could manage on a
corduroy road. White and yellow pine were the preferred woods for plank roads since they were
said to last longer than other varieties, but abundant maple, elm, and other woods were also used
Added to their other benets, it was a bonus that plank roads could be built for about a quar-
ter of the cost of macadam roads, which were also just beginning to gain attention in Ontario. It
was common to plank only one side of a 16-foot-wide (4.9 m), two-lane roadway to carry trac
in both directions, with the dirt side being used only in the case of opposing trac where one trav-
eller had to yield the right of way. Plank roads remained in vogue for about 20 years, when they
were abandoned almost as quickly as they had burst onto the road building scene.
Plenty of Pavement Choices
Today the options for building a road are basically a choice between hot mix asphalt or concrete,
but in the nineteenth century while the science was in its infancy there were as many dierent
options as there were opinions on how to make a good road. e Godson Contracting Company
Ltd. was a leading road builder in the Toronto area in the late 1800s and well into the next century,
and the company was at the forefront of many of the new technologies that presented themselves
at the time. History is indebted to the companys founder, W.A. Godson, for a series of 26 articles
he wrote in 1925 and placed as advertisements in e Canadian Engineer magazine that year.
Detail section of
a plank road.
they might like to form a Canadian partnership to bid on the work. Along with W.A. Godson,
road builders John Taylor, Arthur Ardagh, and Arthur Leonard jumped at the opportunity, and in
1890 the Constructing and Paving Company Limited became the rst Canadian asphalt paving
e new company proceeded to win most of the ensuing asphalt pavement contracts, usually
a two-inch asphalt top spread directly over a stone or concrete base. e company enjoyed a cap-
tive market for only a few years before another contractor, Frederick Coleman, bought a plant and
won a few contracts. en the Barber Asphalt Paving Co., which had taken over the Warren-Scharf
business, enlarged its Toronto plant. Local contractors in the 1890s had to buy their asphalt from
Barber Asphalt, which controlled the supply and price closely, so for a few years the city engineers
specied the use of tar instead.
e earliest hot mix asphalt “plants” were shallow iron trays heated over open coal res. e
aggregates were dried on the tray and then the hot natural asphalt was poured on top and the mix
was stirred by hand. e quality of the mix was directly proportionate to the skill and experience of
the operator. A mechanical mixer was introduced in Paris in 1854, but it didnt take the world by
An Ontario map
published in 1895,
when the population
of Ontario was just
over 2.1 million.