History of Building Roads and the Railway in Northern Ontario – by Gregory Reynolds (Highgrader – Spring 2008)

This column was originally published in the Spring, 2008 issue of Highgrader Magazine which is committed to serve the interests of northerners by bringing the issues, concerns and culture of the north to the world through the writings and art of award-winning journalists as well as talented freelance artists, writers and photographers.

Since mankind came down from its caves and established huts on the plains in order to grow food rather than to hunt it, the need for roads became apparent.

Just who would build them and who would pay for them became an early issue, perhaps the reason why politics was inflicted on the new civilizations. Fast forward to three momentous events, the decision by the Ontario Legislature in 1902 to build a railway north from North Bay to open up the vastness of Northern Ontario, the discovery of silver at Cobalt in 1903 and the discovery of gold in 1909 in what was to become the Town of Timmins.

The railway was to be the first step to staking a legal claim to the North by enticing farmers to homestead the region, thus blocking Quebec from making any claims on what was actually an empty land. The problem was that the legislators sitting in Toronto basically forgot to take the second step, constructing roads to link not just the various mining and farming communities that sprang up but North to South.

Development tended to occur close to the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway which reached Timmins on Jan.1, 1912 but it took another 20 years to reach Moosonee.

Municipal councils came under intense pressure from resident to build roads within their communities but to link the various settlements within the Porcupine Gold Camp was beyond their financial capabilities.

Thus it was left to the mining companies to construct rough paths through the bush to their mineral discoveries. First they had their workers cut down enough trees to let horses snake their way in and around them.

Miners had to help push and pull these wagons with their machinery and supplies to get the big three of Canadian gold mines into production, the Dome, the Hollinger and the McIntyre.

As the mines grew in size and cabins were built on the mine sites to house first the men and then their families, efforts were made to straighten out the bush paths and make them roads.

It was never done out of the goodness of the mine owners’ hearts; they needed the workers, supplies and equipment brought in by train but separated from their final destinations by miles of mud, streams and rocky ridges.

The corduroy road was as old as the chalk hills of Britain but it was slow to be adopted in Northern Ontario because of the expense of cutting down trees and laying them side by side to cross low or swampy ground.

When municipalities got into road building, they solved the manpower problem in a typical practical manner – they used convicts. The drunk, the vandal, the small time thief, all were sentenced to hard labour building roads. Only short term prisoners were used but since there was nowhere to run and only one way out of the North, the railway, the courts could have used those serving two years minus a day.

Workfare is not a new idea, merely a new name for helping those who cannot help themselves. When Yonge Street was officially opened in 1796 its 37.26 miles were built by the military as an invasion was feared from the United States. It wasn’t long before farmers looking to earn a few pennies in the off-season, indentured servants, prisoners and the unemployed were the main source of workers for roads.

This long history of using the lower classes of society for hard, physical work was to continue for nearly 200 years. The sweat of bootleggers, drunk rollers and highgraders fueled the construction of the first external link to the Porcupine Gold Camp, a corduroy road from Hoyle to Porcupine.

Porcupine was linked to Pottsville and then the road reached South Porcupine with its road to the Dome Gold Mine. The road from South Porcupine was pushed west through Schumacher to reach Timmins.

Meanwhile a network of side roads into the mines and there were numerous smaller ones besides the Big Three were created but rarely could be used year around. There were three types of roads in Northern Ontario and whenever the residents managed to pry a few dollars out of Queen’s Park, provincial politicians boasted about them. There were muskeg roads, gravel roads and clay roads.

J.F. Whitson, commissioner for road construction in Northern Ontario, said in a 1916 interview that in sparsely settled districts “it has been found expedient to build muskeg roads. “These highways are just as satisfactory for hauling logs in winter time as are roads of a more permanent construction. “In summer, the muskeg roads are not very satisfactory.”

Today we call such paths ice roads and they are still in use across Northern Ontario to link isolated Aboriginal settlements for a few months. They are created and used in cold weather but melt in the spring, returning the communities to isolation and the high cost of obtaining food and other necessities by air.

Whitson admitted that heavy rains, light snowfalls and the consequence great depth to which the frost penetrated often led to making clay roads unsuitable for traffic. He also admitted when gravel was not available close to a new road, the commission (read government) was not prepared to pay to have it “imported.”

The government claimed to have built between 1,500 and 1,600 miles of highway from 1912 to 1916 in Northern Ontario. Since none were build in or around Timmins, Kirkland Lake or any other northern community, residents were constantly crying to their local and provincial representatives. One of Whitson’s reasons for dragging his feet on highway construction is laughable: “Flies and mosquitoes are added to the other trials which attend the work of opening up the country.”

He forgot residents had to live with these pests. The railway brought motor vehicles into northern settlements but all an owner could do was drive in circles in his own community, such as the Towns of Iroquois Falls and Cochrane.

South Porcupine had its first motor car arrive in 1914 but it didn’t have anywhere to go. It was a big day for the North when Iroquois Falls and Matheson were joined via Monteith and Shillington by a road, creating a potential motor trip of 19.87 miles.

While the North cried and fumed and wrote letters, Yonge Street was slowly crawling north from Toronto. It reached North Bay in 1916 but the First World War forced the province to turn its attention to other issues and the North remained isolated for another eight years. G. Howard Ferguson wanted the farm vote because it could elect or defeat a government so he promised if his Progressive Conservatives won the 1923 election he would extend Yonge Street from North Bay to Cochrane.

After he won, in typical political flimflam, (not having said when the work would be completed) he awarded contracts for 10 miles of work, six miles south of Cochrane and four miles north of North Bay.

Various pieces of road were built at different times, following the age-old practice of rewarding those who voted “right” and punishing those who voted “wrong.” Of course, the contractors were “friends” of the government. The various small links were eventually joined together and on July 2, 1927 Yonge Street officially reached Timmins and Cochrane. On paper a motorist could drive to Toronto but the reality was quite different. The Ferguson Highway, as it was officially named, was a mixture of muskeg, gravel and clay roads.

A motorist could start out for Toronto but there was no guarantee when he would get there or even if ever would make it. So worried was the government about the condition of the Ferguson that it forced those traveling past North Bay to register.

In a 1929 booklet, the government described its new highway this way: “Proceeding a distance of five miles (from North Bay), the tourist arrives at the entrance gates to the new portion of the highway known as Cooks Mills, mileage 236, where the Forestry Department registers the name and address of every tourist entering the territory leading to the magnificent Temagami Forest Reserve.”

Vehicles were known to sink into the muskeg and never be recovered, axles were known to break on rock surfaced by rain and swollen creeks and flat tires were so common some motorists carried four spares. Since tourists could only travel as far north as Cochrane until 1930 and the side roads into Kirkland Lake and Timmins were dead ends, they had to go back to North Bay to head home. If they never made it to the gates, the government could notify their families they were missing by using the register.

Northerners noted with wry humour that they didn’t have to register when heading south. The register was mandatory until the Second World War. Eventually, Highway 11 was paved, the work being completed in the 1950s. It was also straightened and the steeper grades reduced. From 1927 until the paving was completed, travel along Highway 11 was an adventure.

If a person had to be in Toronto for a meeting, he took the train as did most women as there were few hotels between Cochrane and North Bay and a breakdown sometimes meant a night sleeping in the vehicle. Every spring the muskeg sections lost their surfaces, rains washed away huge sections and beavers diverted water courses across them. Winter travel was a “bet your life” situation.

Frank E. Wood, who was a founding member and served as secretary-treasurer of the Iroquois Falls and District Motor Club for its first eight years (1926-33) listed the inventory needed for any car trip: an axe, shovel, tire patches and cement, tire pump and a kit of tools.

At least two spare tires were common as a puncture meant the inner tube had to be removed, patched and inflated. With two spares, one could be repaired by a passenger and the vehicle could proceed after the tire was changed. Work on the west side of Cochrane was started in 1925 and the highway reached Hearst in 1930. It took until 1944 for Highway 11 to reach Port Arthur (Thunder Bay) where it joined the Lakehead to Manitoba section completed in 1935. It then was possible to drive from Toronto to Manitoba.

Yonge became the longest street in the world, stretching from Lake Ontario to Rainy River, 1171.3 miles. The Canadian government decided in 1949 to assist in the development of a true Trans-Canada Highway and by 1960 the Sault Ste. Marie to Port Arthur section was completed, sharply reducing the traffic on the Northern Route through North Bay, Cochrane and Hearst.

Still, the presence of Highway 11 opened up large new areas of the province, assisted the mining, farming and forestry industries and gave birth to the tourist industry. The tourist registration book outside North Bay came about because the government organized an official cavalcade from Toronto in 1927 to publicize the completion of the Ferguson Highway. Just past North Bay one of the vehicles disappeared in the muskeg. No lives were lost but the vehicle was never recovered.

Some history books note Premier Ferguson was on the trip but others fail to mention his presence. In a 25th anniversary booklet on the Porcupine Gold Camp published in 1937, it was noted “Nowadays 11 miles of the main highway as well as many side roads to mining properties are kept open throughout the winter for ordinary motor traffic.

“An efficient system of ploughing municipal roadways soon clears away the snow from the worst storms of winter.” Those who shake their heads at today’s traffic jams in Toronto and the bumper-to-bumper vehicles on its freeways should ponder an historical fact.

After the Ferguson Highway reached Timmins in 1927, the number of vehicles owned locally soared. For a period, Timmins held the record for having the most vehicles per capita in Canada.

Although the Great Depression had started in 1929 and would last until 1939, the gold mines of the North offered steady work. Police patrolled the trains into Northern Ontario and kicked off the unemployed. Hitchhikers were arrested. By deliberate government policy, Northern Ontario was isolated and, for a period, that isolation was welcomed.