It took more than 50 years to create the Trans-Canada
THE LONGEST HIGHWAY
It took more than 50 years to create the Trans-Canada
IN 1946, R.A. Macfarlane made Canadian transportation history when he dipped the front wheels of his new, sixcylinder Chevrolet in the Pacific Ocean in Victoria, nine days and 7,636 km after leaving Louisbourg, N.S. For his efforts, Macfarlane won the Todd gold medal, offered in 1912 by Victoria businessman and automobile transport advocate A.E. Todd for the first Canadian to cross the country by car.
For nearly 35 years others had tried to make that journey, stymied by a lack of pavement and a failure of government will. Shortly after Todd launched his prize, Thomas Wilby made headlines with his cross-Canada attempt. Except Wilby didn’t drive all the way. When the going got tough, he put his automobile onto a railway car or ship. Percy Gomery of Vancouver tried in 1920, but he started only in Montreal and took a 966-km detour through the U.S., between Sault
Ste. Marie, Ont. and Emerson, Man. There were other heroic failures, all calling attention to the car’s growing popularity and, more importantly, underscoring the abysmal state of Canadian roads. It took a federal-provincial agreement, one of the first of its kind, to realize the dream of a Trans-Canada Highway.
Forty years ago this month, the last official link in the Trans-Canada opened between Revelstoke and Golden, B.C. It had taken more than 50 years of debate, controversy and federal-provincial haggling to overcome political, physical and financial obstacles that stretched the construction period from six to 12 years and inflated the cost from a projected $300 million to more than $1 billion. But, in the end, the longest national highway in the world, “an engineering, communications and scenic marvel” in the words of writer Edward McCourt who drove cross-country in 1963, did get built, completing an
effort that rivalled the transcontinental railway for drama and sheer audacity.
Although B.C. governor James Douglas had envisioned a transcontinental highway as early as 1859, federal politicians in the 19th and early 20th centuries focused almost exclusively on railways. Confederation rested firmly on the notion of an iron road running from sea to sea, and the political establishment resisted the idea that the automobile could ever supplant the locomotive.
Even so, businessmen and farmers who moved goods by wagon over relatively short distances started demanding a competitive alternative to rail. In 1894, they formed the Ontario Good Roads Association, the first of several groups to promote the economic benefits of roads and lobby for highway improvements. Clearly, there was a need. An 1896 Ontario government report noted that the province had miles of road “covered with dirty gravel or rough, broken stone.” Many were little better than hole-filled trails that turned into mud puddles after a rain or spring thaw. Well into the 1940s, farmers kept busy hauling motorists out of the muck with teams of horses.
In 1912, the Conservatives under Prime
Minister Robert Borden fulfilled an election promise and passed a bill promoting road building. But the Liberal-dominated Senate blocked it, ostensibly because it switched highway construction responsibility from the provinces to Ottawa. Still, the national highway dream would not die. (A new dream may emerge amid reports last week that boosters of Jean Chrétien are urging him to leave a four-lane TransCanada Highway as a political legacy.)
The First World War diverted Canadians’ attention for a while, but by 1919 a Canada Highways Act was passed, partly to create post-war employment. At that point, Canada had about 480,000 km of roads, with fewer than 1,600 km paved. The act gave the provinces $20 million for road improvements, providing certain construction standards were met. The infusion of federal cash improved roads, but the haphazard, province-by-province approach did little to achieve a transcontinental route. A car trip across Canada resembled a wilderness adventure more than a pleasure jaunt until the late 1940s. Too many Canadian tourists drove their cars and spent their cash along American routes, even when travelling between two Canadian cities. In addition, interprovincial trucking was expanding, and poor roads meant lower profits.
But first the familiar, nagging problem of jurisdiction had to be solved. The provinces asserted their power over roads, but few had the resources or the foresight to tackle a portion of a paved transcontinental highway. Despite fears about federal interference, a federal-provincial partnership seemed the most sensible approach and was a natural extension of the earlier Canadian Highways Act.
In 1948, the first of a series of meetings took place in Ottawa to discuss building a Trans-Canada Highway. The feds left route selection to the provinces, stipulating only that the road follow the shortest practical east-west path. And, of course, it had to be through Canada. But P.E.I. Premier J. Walter Jones pointed out that the shortest—and cheapest—route from his and parts of nearby provinces to Montreal was through the States. “I do not know whether New Brunswick or Quebec would be offended if such a thing were suggested, but certainly I believe the people of Prince Edward Island and Nova
Scotia would be interested if that could be done,” Jones said.
On Dec. 10, 1949, the Trans-Canada Highway Act, which authorized the federal ministry of resources and development to partner with the provinces, became law. The agreement called for a two-lane highway, 22 to 24 feet wide, with Ottawa picking up 50 per cent of the tab. But when the highway cut through national parks, the federal government would pay the entire cost. In Newfoundland, where relatively few roads existed, Joey Smallwood’s government wangled a larger share of federal funds by routing the Trans-Canada through the newly-created Terra Nova National Park.
Only Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis failed to sign on, claiming the idea was another erosion of provincial rights and objecting to federal scrutiny of road contracts. It took until 1960, after Duplessis’s death and the election of a Liberal government, for Quebec to become a partner in the project.
Construction initially bogged down in bureaucratic red tape and Canada’s challenging environment, making the original December, 1956 deadline an impossible dream. In some places, equipment and parts of the road disappeared into the muskeg.
Saskatchewan in 1957 became the first province to finish its section of the road, not surprising since the province is relatively narrow (654 km) and relatively flat. When the road’s final 47-km stretch in the B.C. Rockies opened on July 30, 1962, Ottawa considered the 7,821 km TransCanada Highway complete, even though all the pavement had not been laid and some Newfoundland stretches remained unfinished. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker declared the highway complete at Rogers Pass on Sept. 3,1962. “This historic event taking place on Labour Day is a deserved tribute to the workers on this vast project,” the prime minister said.
Newfoundland completed its portion in 1965, and by the time the last pavement was laid in 1970, the original $300 million project cost had ballooned to $1.4 billion— and Ottawa had contributed well over half, $825 million. It had been a long, arduous journey, but worth the price. As the author of an unsigned April, 1930 Maclean’s article pointed out, “A Canadian should be able to motor from coast to coast through his own country.” H
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.