Canadian Transport Sourcebook

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Chapter II

Early Travel in Canada

British North America before the railway came was a string of scattered provinces. Lake Huron was the western boundary of effective settlement: beyond lay the fur trader's preserve. Between Upper and Lower Canada and the provinces by the Atlantic a wilderness intervened. With the peninsula of Ontario jutting southwest between Michigan and New York, and the northeastern states of the Union thrusting their borders nearly to the St Lawrence, the inland and the maritime provinces knew less of each other than of the neighbouring states.

Settlement clung close to river, lake, and sea. Till the Eastern Townships were settled, Lower Canada had been one long-drawn-out village with houses close set on each side of the river streets. Deep forest covered all the land save where the lumberman or settler had cut a narrow clearing or fire had left a blackened waste. To cut roads through swamp and forest and over river and ravine demanded capital, surplus time, and strong and efficient governments, all beyond the possibilities of early days. On the other hand, the waterways offered easy paths. The St Lawrence and the St John and all their tributaries and lesser rivals provided inevitably the points of settlement and the lines of travel.

The development of water transport in Canada furnishes a record of the interaction of route and cargo, of need and invention, of enterprise and capital. First came the bark canoe, quick to build, light to carry around the frequent gaps in navigation, and large enough to hold the few voyageurs or the rich-in-little peltry that were chief cargo in early days. It was the bark canoe that carried explorer, trader, soldier, missionary, and settler to the uttermost north and south and west. For the far journeys it long held its place. Well on into the nineteenth century fur traders were still sending in supplies from Montreal and bringing back peltry from Fort William in flotillas of great bark canoes. For shorter voyages the canoe gave place to the larger and clumsier bateau, the characteristic eighteenth-century conveyance. After the War of 1812 the increasingly heavy downward freight of grain and potash led to the introduction from the United States of the still larger Durham boats. Along the coast and on the Great Lakes the sailing schooner long filled a notable place. Finally the steamboat came. In 1809, only one year after the Clermont had begun its regular trips on the Hudson, and before any steamboat plied in British home waters, John Molson of Montreal with John Bruce and John Jackson—luckily for Canada not all three baptized 'Algernon'—built at Montreal the 40-ton steamer Accommodation. Seven years later Upper Canada's first steamboat was launched, the 740-ton Frontenac, built at the then thriving village of Ernestown. The fleet of river and lake steamers multiplied rapidly. The speed and certainty and comfort—relative, at least—of the steamboat at once gave a forceful impetus to settlement and to travel, and for some sections ended the pioneer period.

Meanwhile, the waterways were being improved. Little was needed or done in the great network of New Brunswick's rivers or in Nova Scotia's shorter streams, but on the St Lawrence system, with a fall of nearly six hundred feet from Lake Erie to tide-water at Three Rivers, canal construction was imperative. As early as 1779 canals were built round the rapids between Lake St Louis and Lake St Francis, on the St Lawrence, with the depth of only a foot and a half of water on the sills. Far westward, at Sault Ste Marie, the energetic North-West Company built, about 1800, a canal half a mile long. In the early twenties, after the failure of a private company, the province of Lower Canada constructed a boat canal between Montreal and Lachine, and a less successful beginning was made on a canal round the Chambly rapids on the Richelieu. In Upper Canada the British government built the Rideau Canal, chiefly for military purposes. The Welland Canal was begun by a private company in 1824, opened for small boats five years later, and taken over by the province in 1840, after a record notable alike for energy and perseverance and for jobbery and inefficiency. After the Union of 1841, when population, revenue, and credit were all growing, energetic digging was begun on the St Lawrence system of canals, and by 1848 vessels of twenty-six foot beam and drawing nine feet of water could sail from the ocean to Chicago.

Land transport came later than water transport, and developed by slower stages. Road-making was an art which the settler learned slowly. The blazed trail through the woods sufficed for the visit to the neighbour or the church, or for the tramp to the nearest grist-mill with a sack of wheat on one's back. 'He who has been once to church and twice to mill is a traveller,' the common saying ran. The trail broadened to a bridle-road for pack-horse or saddle-horse. The winter, that maligned stepmother of Canada, gave the settler an excellent though fleeting road on the surface of the frozen river or across the hard-packed snow. Through the endless swamps jolting 'corduroy' roads were built of logs laid crosswise on little or no foundation. With more hands and more money there came the graded road, fenced and bridged, but more rarely gravelled. Finally, little earlier than the railway, came the macadamized road, and that peculiar invention of Upper Canada, the plank road, built of planks laid crosswise on a level way, and covered with earth to lessen the wear and noise. Upon these roads carriole or calèche, 'cutter' or 'lumber-wagon,' carried the settler or his goods to meeting-place and market. By 1816 a stage route was established from Montreal to Kingston, a year later from Kingston to York (Toronto), and in 1826 from Toronto to Niagara and from Ancaster to Detroit.

Road-making policy fluctuated between the Scylla of local neglect and the Charybdis of centralized jobbery. At first the settler was burdened with the task of clearing roughly the road in front of his own land, but the existence of vast tracts of Clergy Reserves, or other grants exempt from clearing duties, made this an ineffective system. Labour on roads required by statute, whether shared equally by all settlers or allotted according to assessed property, proved little more successful. On the other hand, the system of provincial grants for road-building too often meant log-rolling and corruption, and in the Canadas it was discontinued after the establishment of municipal institutions in 1841. The reaction to local control was perhaps too extreme, and we are to-day recognizing the need of more aid and control by the central provincial authorities. In the Maritime Provinces the system worked better, and when the railway came these provinces possessed a good network of great roads and by-roads, without a single toll-gate. With the passing of the Joint Stock Act by the Canadian legislature in 1849, toll-road companies were freely organized, and many of the leading roads were sold by the government to these private corporations, and without question their operations brought marked improvement for a time.

To realize more concretely the mode of travelling before the railway came, let us make the journey, say, from Quebec to Toronto, at three different periods, in 1800, in 1830, and in 1850.

'In no part of North America,' wrote an experienced traveller just at the close of the eighteenth century, 'can a traveller proceed so commodiously as along the road from Quebec to Montreal.'1 A posting service had been established which could fairly be compared with European standards. At regular intervals along the road the traveller found post-houses, where the post-master kept four vehicles in readiness: in summer the calèche, a one-horse chaise built for two passengers, with a footboard seat for the driver and with the body hung by broad leather straps or thongs of bull's hide; in winter the carriole, or sledge, with or without covered top, also holding two passengers and a driver. The drivers were bound to make two leagues an hour over the indifferent roads, and in midwinter and midsummer the dexterous, talkative, good-humoured driver, or marche-donc, usually exceeded this rate for most of the journey of three days. From Montreal onward no one travelled in winter except an occasional Indian messenger. Even in summer few thought of going by land, though some half-broken trails stretched westward. The river was the king's highway. The summer traveller at once purchased the equipment needed for a week's river journey—tent, buffalo-skins, cooking utensils, meat and drink—and secured passage on board one of the bateaux which went up the river at irregular intervals in brigades of half a dozen. The bateau was a large flat-bottomed boat, built sharp both at bow and stern, which movable mast, square sail, and cross benches for the crew of five or six. Sometimes an awning or small cabin provided shelter. In still water or light current the French-Canadian crew—always merry, sometimes sober, singing their voyageur songs, halting regularly for the inevitable 'pipe'—rowed or sailed; where the current was strong they kept inshore and pushed slowly along by 'setting' poles, eight or ten feet long and iron shod; and where the rapids grew too swift for poling, the crews joined forces on the shore to haul each bateau in turn by long ropes, while the passengers lent a hand or shot wild pigeons in the neighbouring woods. At night the whole party encamped on shore, erecting tents or hanging skins and boughs from branches of friendly trees. With average weather Kingston could be reached in seven or eight days; the return journey down-stream was made in two or three. From Kingston westward the journey was continued in a sailing schooner, either one of the government gunboats or a private venture, as far as York, or even to the greater western metropolis, Queenston on the Niagara river. In good weather thirty or forty hours sufficed for the lake voyage, but with adverse winds from four to six days were frequently required.

Thirty years later those to whom time or comfort meant more than money could make the through journey in one-third the time, though for the leaner-pursed the more primitive facilities still lingered. For the summer trip from Quebec to Montreal the steamer had outstripped the stage-coach. Even with frequent stops to load the fifty or sixty cords of pine burned on each trip—how many Canadian business men secured their start in prosperity by supplying wood to steamers on lake or river!—the steamer commonly made the hundred and eighty miles in twenty-eight hours. The fares were usually twenty shillings cabin and five shillings steerage, though the intense rivalry of opposing companies sometimes brought reckless rate-cutting. In 1829, for instance, each of the two companies had one boat which carried and boarded cabin passengers for seven and six-pence, while deck passengers who found themselves in food were crowded in for a shilling.

From Montreal to Lachine the well-to-do traveller took a stage-coach, drawn by four spanking greys, leaving Montreal at five in the morning, for stage-coach hours were early and long. At Lachine he left the stage for the steamer, at the Cascades he took a stage again, and at Côteau transferred once more to a steamer for the run to Cornwall. Shortly after 1830 steamers were put on the river powerful enough to breast the current as far as Dickenson's Landing, leaving only a twelve-mile gap to be filled by stage, but in 1830 it was still necessary, if one scorned the bateau, to make the whole journey from Cornwall to Prescott by land, over one of the worst through roads in the province. The Canadian stage of the day was a wonderful contrivance, a heavy lumbering box, slung on leather straps instead of springs, and often made without doors in order that, when fording bridgeless streams, the water might not flow in. With the window was the only means of exit, heavy-built passengers found it somewhat awkward when called upon, as they often were, to clamber out in order to ease the load uphill, or to wait while oxen from a neighbouring farm dragged the stage out of a mud-hole. The traveller who 'knew the ropes' provided himself with buffalo-skins or cushions; others went without. Arrived at Prescott, the passengers shifted to a river steamer, fitted more commodiously than the little boats used in the lower stretches, but still providing no sleeping quarters except in open bunks circling round the dining-saloon.

For thousands of the immigrants who were pouring into Upper Canada the fares of the river steamer were still prohibitive. Many came on bateaux, sometimes poled along as of yore, sometimes taken in tow by a steamer. Often more than a hundred immigrants, men, women, and children, would be crowded into a single thirty-foot bateau, 'huddled together,' a traveller notes, 'as close as captives in a slave trader, exposed to the sun's rays by day, and the river damp by night, without protection.'2 Still more used the Durham boat for the river journey. This famous craft was a large, flat-bottomed barge, with round bow and square stern. With centre-board down and mainsail and topsail set on its fixed mast, it made fair progress in the wider stretches. But on the up trip it was for the most part poled or 'set' along. Each of the crew took his stand at the bow end of one of the narrow gangways which ran along both sides of the boat, set firmly in the river bottom his long, heavy, iron-shod pole, put his shoulder to it, and, bending almost double, walked along the gangway to the stern and inch by inch forced the boat up-stream. 'The noise made by the clanking of the iron against the stones, as the poles were drawn up again toward the bow, could be heard for a long distance on a calm summer's day.' Finally, at Prescott or Kingston the Durham boat was exchanged for the lower decks of the steamer, and the rest of the journey made with somewhat greater speed, if not much greater comfort.

The twenty years which followed 1830 saw the steamboat in its prime. the traveller going westward from Quebec in 1850 had a simple task before him: a change at Montreal was the only necessary break in a relatively comfortable and speedy journey. Two days now sufficed for the trip from Montreal to Toronto. In the United States, river boats had been evolved which far surpassed anything Europe had to offer in luxury and speed. Canadian business men were not far behind, and the St Lawrence lake and river route was well supplied with crack steamers, of the Royal Mail and rival lines, or with independent boats. The competition was at times intense, both in fares and in speed. Many Canadians of the day, absorbed in the local or personal rivalries of these boats, and impressed by their magnificence and reliability, were convinced that the last word in transportation had been said. Yet, on the lake and river, winter barred all through traffic. The main turnpike roads of the interior were greatly improved, but even on these long-distance traffic was expensive, and the by-roads, especially in the spring and autumn, were impassable except at a snail's pace. For traffic of town with town and province with province some means of transport less dependent on time and tide was urgently needed.