Ah, for the days of pioneer roads, and the joys of shake, rattle and roll

EDWIN C. GUILLET June 1 1967

Ah, for the days of pioneer roads, and the joys of shake, rattle and roll

EDWIN C. GUILLET June 1 1967

Ah, for the days of pioneer roads, and the joys of shake, rattle and roll


SO GREAT WERE the difficulties of travel in early Canada that it is hard to realize how extensively the roads were actually used. Not for pleasure, it is true — no one took a trip if it could be avoided, except perhaps on the smooth winter surface — but from sheer necessity. There were no corner shops in the pioneer settlements. Everything that could not be grown or made at home had to be fetched, often over considerable distance.

Even after roads appeared it was still often faster to walk than to battle a wagon over the bumps and windfalls. Many an early settler carried a sack of wheat on his back 30 miles to the mill, and returned home a day or two later with the flour. To buy a bag of salt, he might have to walk 100 miles each way. Even a few yards of cloth could involve a prodigious amount of travel and expense. In 1813 Colonel Thomas Talbot, to whom the government had turned over control of most of the London and western districts of Upper Canada, offered a few of his settlers a bargain; he would supply them with wool if they would have it made into cloth and give him half. Garrett Oakes was one of the men who agreed to do so, and this is his account of what followed:

“I hired a horse and went and got 50 pounds. Here was 40 miles traveled. I then hired a horse and took the wool to Port Dover and had it carded, for which 1 paid $6.25. and returned home, which made 100 miles more. My wife spun the rolls, and I had made a loom for weaving, but we had no reed (part of the loom) for flannel. I then went 60 miles on foot to a reed-maker's, but he had none that was suitable, and would not leave his work on the farm until I agreed to give him the price of two reeds, $6.50. and work a day in his place. My wife wove the cloth, and I took my half to Dover to the fulling mill (for final processing). When finished I had 18 yards, for which I had paid $34.75 and traveled 140 miles on horseback and 260 miles on foot, requiring in all about 15 days’ labor.”

Sometimes the cost of inadequate transportation had to be paid in human life. If the nearest doctor was a 40-mile walk away, a man could be excused for

hesitating before summoning help—and by the time he did act, it might be too late.

Wagon travel was always an adventure. Accidents and breakdowns were common. The wayside was littered with the broken wheels and shafts of wrecks. Catharine Parr Traill, an early Canadian author, tells of bouncing over a corduroy road in a rough cart, the pegged sides of which more than once fell apart. In the middle of a deep mudhole. the frontboard gave way. throwing the driver into the muck. Later, a jolt against a pine tree knocked out one of the bottom boards, dumping a sack of flour and a bag of salt pork onto the ground. The driver was scarcely taken aback. The sides needed only new pegs to make them whole; the loose bottom planks were quickly replaced; and off they set again over root, stump, stone, mudhole. and corduroy.

In the Montreal district many families emigrated to the United States during the early 1800s because they had no way to get their farm produce to market; and as late as the 1830s the roads around Montreal were still described as “disgraceful.”

As the roads improved, more comfortable vehicles made their appearance. In Lower Canada the calèche came into frequent use. In Upper Canada another form of wagon was used, described thus by a local writer, M. G. Shrerk:

“[ItI had wooden axles with a strip of iron above and below, to prevent the wood from wearing away. They were greased with tar. made from the pitch got from the pine trees, mixed with lard in winter to prevent it from becoming too thick.”

The development of the elliptical steel spring about 1840 made wagon driving a little more pleasant. Those who could afford more than an all-purpose wagon bought a buggy. These light carriages sat two people and were often handsomely designed. They had a hood, and their large wheels made them practical over bumps and in mud. In the towns the gentlemen owned fine carriages in which they would take the air with their ladies on a Sunday afternoon. Many of the country vehicles were homemade to the owner’s design and, no matter how func-

The law: no drunk driving—even when riding horseback

tional, had a rather peculiar appearance. There were other strange sights on the road, however, among them the traveling menagerie, with its lions and tigers and camels, which provided some of the earliest commercial entertainment in the Canadas.

Increased traffic required some regulation. The first traffic laws were concerned with the marking of roads in

winter, usually by evergreen branches set in the snow along the side. This was the responsibility of the neighboring landowner. and was so important that he was I i a hie to severe penalties for failure to meet his obligations. He was also expected to clear the road of snowdrifts and fallen trees. Where this was not done, winter travelers took the easiest route around the drifts, going over or

pulling down any rail fences in the way.

Later regulations provided for sleigh bells on harnesses in the winter to warn of oncoming vehicles when visibility was poor. Drivers were ordered to pass on the right and overtake on the left, and to allow half the road to the other sleigh or carriage.

From the beginning the dangerous driver seems to have been a problem.

and long before the arrival of motor cars there were laws against drunk driving (including men on horseback), “furious” driving (except on the occasional town street set aside to accommodate racing by exhibitionists), and the use of improper language when drivers tangled. There does not appear to have been any law against what was still a major sport in the author's youth in Cobourg, Ont. — “hooking” rides on the horse-drawn sleighs and cutters. To catch them in full tilt was quite a feat; many boys spent their Saturdays at the game.

Another long-standing sport was cheating the toll keepers — “running the toll” by dashing past the gate at full speed without paying. (F.ven provincial lieutenant-governors were known to have evaded the keepers.) The toilgates were a constant source of irritation throughout the 19th century. Theoretically, the turnpike trusts were established to improve the roads under their care by planking or macadamizing them, and in return they were allowed to charge every traveler a fee. Hut the toll roads were rarely maintained in good condition. Residents in the Cobourg area were so angered by the state of the turnpike to Port Hope in 1859 that they advertised for 100 mud scows to be used along its length, commenting satirically that "this new mode of conveyance is necessary, as the loss of horses, wagons, and valuable lives in the fathomless abyss of mud during court week was fearfully alarming." Exasperated travelers even went so far occasionally as to set fire to toll houses.

The countryside was a patchwork of local toll roads, mostly only a few miles long, leading from one village or town to another, dolls varied. On some roads a traveler on foot was charged one penny, on others he went free. A saddlehorse and rider usually paid twopence. Some curious exceptions were made. People on their way to church were frequently exempt; and shipments of manure within 20 miles of a city were sometimes not charged.

Toll roads persisted in some tueas until World War I. and one at Sarnia. Ont., continued in use until 1926. The writer has vivid memories of five toilgates in the Cobourg area in his youth, and of the trouble they caused even toward the end. One of them figured in a manslaughter case after a motorist ran through a tollgate and killed the keeper.

Gradually, the early toll roads were taken over by municipalities. All that remain are memories occasioned by the survival of such names as “the OKI Toll Road” or “the Tollgate Road” here and there.

Sheer physical effort and determination could carry the farmer to the nearest market town, no matter how bad the roads he had to use. Hut speedy communication between Canada's scattered cities was a different matter. Overland travel was limited by the strength and endurance of animal muscle. Nothing— neither a person nor a message — could move faster than a horse could gallop. Hut a horse could not travel all day at high speed. The answer was the stagecoach.

A team of coach horses could safely run about 15 miles (depending on terrain and road conditions) before they became exhausted. At that point a fresh team had to be waiting to take over. And so on. in relays, until the destination wai reached. The system demanded a high degree of organization. A string of first-class animals had to be maintained along the entire route, with all that this entailed — stables and stablemen, supplies of hay and oats, provision of water, adequate allowance for sickness of man and beast. Vehicles and harness had to be kept in tip-top shape, and repairs made quickly. There was never time to waste.

continued on page 92a

In a hurry? Toronto-to-Montreal jiffy service: just over 4 days

Long before the heavy, swaying coach arrived al a stopping point its driver was sounding the alert on his brass horn. At the notes the village woke up. for the stage with its bustle and strange faces and promise of mail was a high point in the routine of life. By the time the steaming horses had been reined to a halt in the cobbLd stableyard, a fresh team was standing ready to be hitched, and hot food was waiting for the travelers.

Sometimes the food was simply thrust into the carriage while the horses were changed, the mail dumped on the floor and sorted — then crack! went the driver's tong whip, and the rattling, bouncing trip resumed.

One of the epics of Canadian travel was a race against time from Toronto to Montreal in the winter of 1840 by the governor general, the future Lord Sydenham (it was said to reprieve a prisoner sentenced to hang). I he driver. William Weller bet $1.000 that he could cover the 360 miles in 36 hours. ( 1 he regular schedule allowed four and a half days, with overnight stops.)

It was February, and the roads were fast. The governor general was tucked into a warm bed on a sleigh, the start was timed, and. whirling a 20-foot lash. Weller began the trip. Every 15 miles hostlers stood ready with four fresh horses and hot food. Without a stop for sleep, the stagecoach owner drove through the night and next day. and in just 35 hours and 40 minutes pulled up his steaming horses outside the Montreal office. The prisoner was saved and Weller received, in addition tea his fee and side-bet, a handsomely engraved watch from the governor general.

In Lower Canada the calèches were the first vehicles to be used as public conveyances. They had just enough room for the driver and two passengers, who by the end of the trip would be spattered with mud or choked with dust, depending on the weather. I his was called traveling by post. Calèches were used as early as 1780 on the route from Quebec to Montreal, which was divided into 24 stages; a similar vehicle could be hired on the Niagara portage as early as 1798. Elsewhere the “stage-wagon was seldom more than an open cart with a plank floor and rough board seats. Gradually, these were displaced on the main routes by enclosed carriages; but in more outlying regions they continued in service. Often they were hired specially tor a trip when no regular service was available.

Lower Canada's main stage route ran between Quebec and Montreal. I he trip took two long days, from 4 a.m. till 8 p.m. each, even with four-horse teams. Other routes in the early 19th century led from Montreal to Albany. New York, and from Quebec to Boston. There was a weekly run from Montreal to the Long Sault on the Ottawa River, where passengers took to boats for the rest of the way to Hull.

The development of stage service in Upper Canada was slowed by the state of the roads. In 1817. when the Kingston Road was opened. Samuel Purdy began a line from Toronto to Kingston, where it met another coming from Montreal; but the route was so difficult that his schedule was maintained only during the winter. In the spring Purdy closed shop and travelers had to use lake boats. It was not until Weller's brightly colored coaches — light yellow, drawn by six bay horses — began operating in 1830 that Upper and Lower ( añada were linked by a regular fast service. By that time another company was offering scheduled two-day trips to the London. Ont., area, and there was a well-estab-

lished line from Toronto to Niagara, a pleasant one-day stage jaunt, with a three-hour stop so that travelers might view the Falls.

Most stagecoach operators carried mail as well as passengers. Phis was in fact one of their most important functions: Weller said as much by naming his company the Royal Mail Line. It meant a guaranteed income from the

government, and it could make the difference between profit and loss. To the people along the route it meant the beginning of what we now consider normal postal service. Previously, a few hardy couriers had maintained a skeleton delivery service across the provinces, but weeks or months might pass between their visits. A merchant in Montreal, writing to Toronto, could scarcely ex-

pect an answer in less than three weeks.

The stagecoaches cut that time in half. For the first time, Canadians had a fast, regular, dependable way of communicating with one another.

Operators like Weller and Belcher staked their reputation on reliability and did their level best to maintain it. They had little else to sell; certainly not comfort. The stage-wagons used on minor routes in particular could be miserable conveyances indeed.

One traveler has left a graphic description of his experiences on such a trip in

You paid to ride— but when the going got tough, you walked

November 1X46 from Hamilton to Niagara. The stage was a lumber wagon with a canvas covering. They set out at 6 p.m. on a dark, rainy night — eight people, including the driver, crowded onto rough board seats, among them a young child who cried most of the night. The roads were so bad that on several occasions they had to get out ami walk through the clinging mud. f inally,

when all were exhausted, the stage entered Niagara as the sun rose. Such conditions were by no means unusual. It was said that in the early days of the Kingston Road some settlers walked the 160 miles from Toronto to Kingston, and arrived a day ahead of the stage! The grander coaches that eventually ran on all main routes were still heavy, clumsy contrivances. A judge, who presumably

had to make use of them frequently on the business of the courts, described one: “The body was closed at the front and back and covered with a stout roof. There were three seats inside, each of which was intended for three passengers; those on the front seat sat with their backs to the horses, those on the middle seals faced them; the back seat was the most comfortable. Outside was the driver's seat.

and another immediately behind it on the roof; each of these would hold three persons. The best seats in fine weather were those on the outside of the coach, as they commanded a good view of the country on all sides ... At the back of the coach body was the baggage-rack for trunks, which were tightly strapped on and protected by a large leather apron. Lighter baggage was put on the roof, which was surrounded by a light iron railing . . . The whole affair was gaudily painted.”

In some less-elaborate models the passengers had to climb in through the window; these coaches were designed without doors to keep out the water when they had to cross unbridged rivers.

Describing the roughness of the roads, Catharine Traill said she usually emerged at the end of a journey "black and blue.” Another writer, after a particularly hectic trip, remarked that “broken heads” were not a rarity. The chief cushioning was the press of passengers: the coach lines worked on the principle that there was always room for one more, and that a traveler squeezed tightly between two other people had less chance of being hurled from his seat when the vehicle pitched into a hole.

At times the driver would call to the passengers, “Gentlemen, a little to the right." or, “a little to the left.” at which all would throw their weight to keep the vehicle upright. On other occasions everyone might disembark and walk beside the coach to lighten the load while the driver navigated a particularly difficult stretch.

Now and then the stage w;as held tip and robbed, but highway men were never as serious a threat as they were in other times and places. Passengers were in much greater danger from their own coachmen. The drivers were tough men who enjoyed mastering their spirited teams. Most of them also enjoyed a drink while the horses were being changed. After a number of stops the ride was apt to be rougher and the possibility of upsets greater. In the winter of 1848 a drunken stagecoach driver drove over the edge of the bank into the St. Lawrence River. Another coach turned over in a ravine after its driver fell asleep.

The coach stops were always convenient to an inn for the benefit of the passengers as well as the driver. It was alleged from time to time that some drivers were in league with certain innkeepers to delay the journey so that everyone would have time to spend a little more money. True or not, the roadside inn was an important part of coaching. It offered ample meals, if not always perfectly prepared, with plenty of meat, pies, puddings and fruit. When the passengers stopped for the night there was also crude accommodation, frequently shared with bedbugs or worse

With the coming of the railways and their greater speed, safety, comfort and punctuality, the long-distance stage lines gradually disappeared. At a grand dinner in honor of the opening of the Cobourg and Peterborough Railroad in 1854, William Weller, the stage proprietor, made this contribution:

"I know why you have called upon me for a speech — it is to hurt my feelings; for you know I get my living by running stages, and you are taking the bit out of my mouth at the same time as you take it out of my horses' mouths. You are comparing in your minds the present times with the past when you had to carry a rail, instead of riding one. in order to help my coaches out of the mud. But after all I am rejoiced to see old things passing away and conditions becoming Weller."

f rom The Story of Canadian Roads, by Edw in C. Cuiller. Copyright © University of Toronto Press.