[Northern Ontario history] Building Highway 11 – by Gregory Reynolds (Highgrader Magazine – Late Fall, 2011 issue)

This column was originally published in the Late Summer, 2011 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.

When northerners are not talking about the weather, they complain about the sorry state of many of the highways in Northern Ontario. They look with envy at the first-class highways and byways in the south and talk bitterly about Highway 17 being a death trap and think Highway 144 between Sudbury and Timmins should have a sign saying: “Drive at your own risk and only in daylight. Large trucks, moose and bears have the right of way.”

Still, the North does have a few highways that are no longer part way between cow paths and obstacle courses and residents do manage to get about.

It was not always so and the story of the Yonge Street extension that became today’s Highway 11 could be the history of any major traffic route in the North. While the money for highways came from the south, northerners built their own roads, prisoners, farmers and bush workers between seasons, the poor and those on the welfare rolls.

The province decided in 1902 to open up the North by building a railway north from North Bay to access the farm lands of the region and to prevent the vast area ending up as part of Quebec. The Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway (T&NO) as it was known reached the Town of Cochrane in 1908 and it was the sole lifeline with the south in times of disaster, such as the Great Porcupine Fire of 1911 (71 dead), the Matheson Fire of 1916 (223 dead) and the Haileybury Fire of 1922 (43 dead).

The silver mines of Cobalt and the gold mines of Timmins and Kirkland Lake contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Ontario economy. Hundreds, then thousands of men and women, flocked to the new mining communities. At the same time, the farming potential of the North was considered by politicians more important than mining or lumbering. The farm vote was a key bloc in Ontario politics and in order to capture it in the 1923 election, Progressive Conservative leader G. Howard Ferguson promised to extend Yonge north from North Bay to Cochrane.

After winning the election, Ferguson set about keeping his word. Contracts for 10 miles of work, five miles south from Cochrane and five miles north from North Bay, were awarded in 1923.

Various pieces of the road were built at different times, following the age old political practice of rewarding those who voted “right” and punishing those who voted “wrong.” It would take many letters and numerous delegations to Toronto but eventually in 1927 the new Ferguson Highway linked Timmins, Matheson, Iroquois Falls and Cochrane to Toronto.

Work west of Cochrane had started in 1925 and with completion of a short section west of Opasatika, the Cochrane-Hearst link was opened in 1930. There is a historical footnote to the Ferguson Highway saga that illustrates just how little regard was held for the North in the circles of power in Ontario.

Those hardy souls who attempted to drive north of North Bay were puzzled because they had to register at gates manned by provincial employees. The new highway was opened with much fanfare on July 2, 1927 and allowed motorists to go all the way to Cochrane, located 228 miles north of the Bay.

In 1929, an Ontario government booklet described the new road this way: “Proceeding a distance of five miles further (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.” This practice continued until World War II and it was a source of wry humour among northerners that those who travelled south didn’t have to register.

The lives of tourists, it seemed, were more important then those of the residents of the province’s hinterland. There was a sound reason for registering tourists but few visitors were told it. In order to publicize the completion of the Ferguson Highway, the government organized an official cavalcade in 1927 from Toronto. Just beyond North Bay, one of the drivers left the highway and plowed into an area of muskeg….which promptly swallowed the vehicle.

No lives were lost but the vehicle was never recovered. Some history books say Premier Ferguson was on the trip but others fail to mention his presence. Regardless, his government took action to protect the young tourist industry.

Since you could only travel as far north as Cochrane up until 1930 and there were no east-west roads, anyone who passed North Bay on the Ferguson Highway had to return that way. If a tourist never made it back to the gates, the government would be able to notify his family through the means of the register.

The use of the word ‘highway’ to describe the routes in Northern Ontario up until the 1950s was at best charitable and at worst misleading. Yonge Street that became the Ferguson Highway that became the Northern Route of the Trans-Canada Highway that became Highway 11 began life as a meandering path between stumps cleared by militia. That those troops would rather have done something else with their time in 1923 is a certainty but road-building by those who didn’t particularly want to do it was a way of life in Ontario until the outbreak of World War II.

Over the years as Yonge was pushed ever northward, farmers looking to earn a few pennies between seasons, indentured servants, prisoners and the unemployed and poor worked on it. Workfare is not a new notion in this province. Those who wanted welfare a 100 years ago had to perform some sort of public service. Since there was a continued need for both maintenance on existing roads and for new ones, work was always available.

On high dry land, a road was created by cutting down the trees and removing just enough stumps to allow one wagon to pass. Where the ground was low or swampy, the cut trees were laid side by side to create a surface known as corduroy. This system was both fairly quick and cheap but it meant roads wandered from point to point, using the highest ground possible and avoiding streams and rivers.

Bridges required the use of stonemasons if they were to be permanent and therefore were costly. In less settled areas, wooden bridges were erected but they often were the victims of floods, fires and other disasters (such as beavers needing building material) and it was common to have to replace them annually.

Northern Ontario residents fought a perpetual battle with Queen’s Park to have roads built, then to have them maintained and finally to have them upgraded to the point where they could be used safely the year around.

Although the Ferguson Highway linking Cochrane and Timmins to Toronto was officially opened July 2, 1927, the reality was that the road couldn’t be used for much of the year. Every spring the muskeg swallowed sections and the rains washed away huge segments. It wasn’t until the 1950s that all of Highway 11 was paved so that there was a uniformed surface its length. It also was straightened and the steeper grades were reduced.

Back in 1912, the Ontario Legislature passed the Northern and Northwestern Development Act that empowered the government to borrow up to $5 million to promote settlement, build roads and bridges and improve transportation facilities in the northern districts. Between 1918 and 1927, $35 million was allocated for the same purpose. Despite the fact that the Ferguson Highway wouldn’t reach Hearst until 1930, there was road work continually occurring.

The Department of Northern Development reported in 1926 that in the Hearst sub-district of the Cochrane North District the “major portion of the outlay was on construction of roads to provide the settlers with outlets to the existing system of trunk roads, much of the work being done for the relief of the unemployed in the district.” To be honest, when it came to road-building, the provincial government never could win. The south had the people that meant political power and the North had resources but few people.

And it really has not changed to this day. Linked first by canoe routes and then by the railways, northern communities fought long and hard to be joined by roads. Communities could use local tax dollars to create a few miles of roads within their boundaries but the many vehicles shipped north on the T&NO really could go nowhere. There were many miles of bush between communities.

It was on April 3, 1929 that the deputy minister of northern development, C.H. Fullerton, spoke to 144 members and guests of the Iroquois Falls and District Motor Club in the Iroquois Hotel.

His speech dealt with the dilemma facing the province when it came to building roads. He said the government could adopt one of two policies.

The first would be to build a short section of first-class road every year. The second would be to open roads as quickly as possible and then improve them over time as finances permitted. This was the policy of the government of the day, the speaker said.

Under the first policy, the Ferguson Highway would be a long way south of Iroquois Falls (it took four years 1923-27 to build the stretch from North Bay to Cochrane), he said.

“While it is obvious that under the abnormally wet conditions last season, the road left much to be desired, yet, at the same time, there is a highway and with the steady progress that is being made from year-to-year, it is rapidly approaching more ideal conditions,” Fullerton said.

He spoke “very highly of the work of the Iroquois Falls Club in cooperating with the government and in maintaining a spirit of fairness towards the authorities while at the same time pressing vigorously for various improvements.” As was the political practice of the time, Fullerton brought a good news announcement with him.

Loud applause met his news that his department had decided to rebuild that year the 9.3 miles stretch between Matheson and Ramore. He said it was recognized that the present road was “very narrow and dangerous and not in conformity with the new sections of the highway.” The mood of the club is best illustrated by the 1928 report of president G. J. Thistlewaite:

“The 1927 season saw the opening of a roadway to the south, a motorcade to Toronto of several hundred cars, the appointment of a local (driving) examiner, the opening of the road from Iroquois Falls to Nellie Lake and the erection of a large number of road signs in this vicinity. “Greater progress for the convenience and pleasure of the motorists in this district has been achieved than in any previous season.

“While the local club is by no means solely responsible for all of these accomplishments, it is quite obvious that our work and cooperation with the government and other organizations has been most effective and successful. “In spite of the achievements referred to we are far from being in a position to sit back and rest.

“The Ferguson Highway will require a great deal of additional work to put it in good shape and steady pressure will have to be kept on the government to accomplish this. “This is only one of our problems,” the president said.

Residents of Northern Ontario were not shy about demanding road links with the rest of the province. They bombarded their elected officials with letters, outlining the plight of families trapped in small communities with only a few hundred feet of roads. Delegations gave the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway a great deal of business as they made annual visits to Toronto to urge the provincial government to build a highway north
from North Bay.

In 1923 new Premier Ferguson was the recipient of many personal letters. A former Hamilton resident who got a job with the Abitibi Power and Paper Company mill in Smooth Rock Falls wrote the premier thus: “We have not a foot of road outside the mill yard and automobiles cannot come any closer to us than about 12 miles west where there is a gravel road they can travel on, and about the same distance east; so you will see that we are right in the middle of a 25 mile stretch to travel and it is winter and we cannot run a speeder on the (railway) track.

‘“We simply have to hoof it. “What this means in the event of an emergency is shown by the instance of a doctor starting out at 11 o’clock at night for a 15-mile walk along the track and through the bush to attend to two patients very low with pneumonia. “This is declared to be no uncommon experience, nurses having to walk five and ten miles to take care of the sick.

“We in this part of Northern Ontario feel that we have been neglected as far as the building of roads is concerned and I believe if a few more people in the south country realized the conditions in which we are living up here, they would be more inclined to help us get what is surely our due.”

In 1929, the government could claim there were 14,000 miles of trunk highways in Northern Ontario. At the annual meeting in 1937, MPP Joe Habel (Cochrane North-Liberal) predicted to club members that more than 50 miles of the Ferguson Highway between Porquis Junction and Temagami would be paved that year. Northern motorists accepted motoring problems as they did black flies and mosquitoes, a fact of life.

Frank E. Wood, who was a founding member and served as secretary-treasurer of the Iroquois Falls Motor Club for its first eight years, recalled several trips after sufficient years had passed to make the humour apparent. “In 1927, I purchased a new Chrysler two door sedan. On a warm, sunny day I decided to take a day off from work and take my family and mother-in-law who was visiting from Toronto some 42 miles to South Porcupine and Timmins. About half way to Timmins, I had a puncture caused by a nail in my brand new tire. After changing the tire we proceeded and while driving around Timmins I had two more punctures. Coming home that evening, I picked up a 6-inch spike to make the fourth puncture in less than 70 miles.”

Wood recalled that “every trip out of town seemed sure to produce some emergencies so we always carried an axe, a shovel, tire patches and cement, a hand tire pump and a kit of tools.(Other histories listed food as a vital item for any trip. “A puncture meant one had to remove the inner tube, patch it, pump up the tire and reinstall it. One summer our dentist left with his family on vacation but had so many punctures, I think about 15, before he reached North Bay that he ran out of patches. Settlements were few and far between and communications were poor or non-existent.

A breakdown usually meant a wait of several hours for assistance. The government did install emergency phones every five miles on the Ferguson Highway up to Latchford, which was some help, as there was only one gas station and garage in the 60 miles to Temagami,” he said.

There were people in the North who dreamed of climbing Mount Everest, others of finding a gold mine but if you were a motorist you dreamed of driving to Toronto in less than two days…and it was not that long ago.