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Early Roads and Transportation
Upper Canada

The aboriginal inhabitants of North America travelled largely by water, especially for their long journeys. The great waterways were the highways of transportation. The St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, the Ottawa; in the west the Ohio River, the Mississippi, the Missouri, and their tributaries; all were main lines of travel.

The principal route from Montreal and Quebec westward was by the Ottawa River and thence by Lake Nipissing and the French River to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, and on to Lakes Michigan and Superior. The route west by Lake Ontario and Lake Erie was also to some extent followed. One objection to it was that it was controlled by the Iroquois Indians, hostile to the Hurons and other northern tribes. But the large open lakes were difficult of navigation for the Indian canoe, which had to skirt along the shore.

A noted early expedition was that of the missionaries Dollier de Casson and Galinée in 1669–1670. They went by the south shore of Lake Ontario, and then crossed from about Dundas, at the head of Burlington Bay, to the Grand River, probably near Glen Morris, down the river to Lake Erie, and then along the north shore of that lake. They returned by the northern route.

Overland there were well defined Indian trails, which ,after the advent of the white man, eventually became roads. Several of the main roads east and west through New York State were originally Indian trails.

While my brief paper deals generally with early roads and transportation in Upper Canada, it concerns itself more particularly with the trek of the settlers of what became Waterloo Township. Settlers came from Pennsylvania to the Grand River Colony for about twenty years, 1800 to 1820 mainly. Some stragglers came later. The general vehicle of transportation was the Conestoga waggon, with heavy running gear and high box fitted with stout ash or elm hoops over which was stretched a canvas top; the waggon drawn by four or six horses. Our society has one of these waggons which was driven by Abraham Weber, one of the early settlers, in 1807, from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to the site of the present City of Kitchener. Ox teams were also used by those who had no horses, or for heavy freight. Information as to the route followed by the settlers is meagre. There is little of record, and the emigrants had scant knowledge of geography. There is mention of crossing the Allegheny Mountains, and the difficulty thereto attendant, but it is not stated where this was. We must turn to a study of the existing roads of that period.

The German Mennonite section of Pennsylvania comprised the southern tier of counties, from the eastern end of the state to about the north and south centre line. Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Berks, Lancaster, York, Cumberland and Franklin Counties supplied the bulk of the Upper Canada Settlers of Pennsylvania origin.* They crossed the Niagara River mostly at Black Rock ferry, a few miles below Lake Erie. There was also a ferry from Lewiston to Queenston, below the falls and rapids.

What was the route from Pennsylvania to the Niagara River? The route from Philadelphia to Buffalo and Black Rock was a beaten track of well established travel. It is given in detail with time and distance, by Lieutenant Francis Hall; an English Officer, who traversed it, at comfortable pace as will be noted, in a "Light Jersey Waggon" drawn by one horse, in the fall of 1816, as follows:

Black Rock to Philadelphia
  Miles 
Oct. 19Buffalo .........................2New York
 Williamsville ....................10
 Porter's Inn .....................4
20Batavia .........................26
21Caledonia ......................17
23Avon ..........................7
 Danville (Dansville) ..............28
24Canisteo .......................17
25Bath ...........................20
26Painted Post ....................18
27Newtown or Elmira .............17
28Tyoga Point (Athens) ...........20Pennsylvania
30Wysall ..........................13
 Lent Fevre's Inn ..................8
31Wyalusing ......................8
 Tunkhannock ...................20
1Wilkesbarre .....................28
4Wragg's Inn .....................17
 Pokono Mountain ................12
5Wind Gap ......................16½
 Nazareth .......................9
6Bethlehem ......................10
7Sellers' Inn .....................20
8Philadelphia ....................31
 Total ...................378½miles.

This route, at least the part of it through the state of New York and a large part of that in Pennsylvania, is a main travelled motor route to-day. At Bath, N.Y., it enters a side valley of the main Susquehanna River Valley. The Susquehanna is reached at Athens, Pa., and from there followed to Wilkesbarre. Between Wilkesbarre and Nazareth is the crossing of the Allegheny ridge, to the valley of the Lehigh River.

From central Pennsylvania the route was no doubt more directly northward. The pioneer settlers, Joseph Schoerg and Samuel Betzner, came from near Chambersburg, Franklin County, more than 140 miles west of Philadelphia. Their route, very probably, was to Harrisburg, up the Susquehanna to Northumberland, then, by the west fork, on to Williamsport, from where an old road is shown on the maps leading northerly across the mountains to Elmira or Bath, on the route already given. Schoerg and Betzner crossed the Niagara at Black Rock ferry in the fall of 1799. Early in the spring of 1800 they set out together from Ancaster, where Betzner had wintered, for Block 2 of the Six Nation Indian lands on the Grand River, now Waterloo Township. A large part of their way was through the dense forest, possibly along Indian trails. Eby relates that in 1799 and 1800 two Englishmen, Ward and Smith, were engaged in slashing a way for a road which the government contemplated building from Dundas to the upper blocks of the Indian lands.

"Hall's Travels" has a good map of the Niagara Peninsula and adjoining territory. This shows two roads from Newark (Niagara) to Burlington Bay, one near the lake shore all the way, crossing Burlington Inlet and extending from there back to Dundas; the other from Lewiston ferry, mostly near the foot of the escarpment, all along to Dundas; one road from Chippewa to Ancaster, above the escarpment; two roads, one on each side of the Chippewa River, from Chippewa to Canby Town, from where two roads go toward Lake Ontario and one, somewhat roundabout, to Ancaster and one road from Fort Erie along the shore of Lake Erie to some distance beyond the Grand River. Canby Town, about twenty miles northwest of the outlet of the Grand River, is shown as a considerable road centre.

All of these roads are shown on W. Chewett's 1813 map of Upper Canada. The full title of this map is: "A Map, of the Located Districts in the Province of Upper Canada, Describing all the New Settlements, Townships, etc., with adjacent Frontiers. Compiled and corrected from the latest surveys in the Surveyor General's Office by William Chewitt*, Senior Surveyor and Draughtsman, under the direction of Francis Gore, Esq., Lieutenant Governor & c., to whom this map is most respectfully inscribed by William Faden, Geographer to His Majesty and to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, Charing Cross, January 1st, 1813." Other main roads are Dundas Street, extending from London to east of Kingston; a road (Yonge Street) from Toronto to Lake Simcoe; roads from Niagara to the head of Lake Erie; etc. Both Dundas Street, which was to extend throughout Upper and Lower Canada from Detroit to Montreal, and Yonge Street, projected to the northern military post, Penetanguishene, were projects of Governor Simcoe, who, up to his time, was the most considerable road builder in Canadian History. Yonge Street was open from York (Toronto) to Lake Simcoe by 1794 and soon attracted considerable settlement. Only parts of Dundas Street were open when Governor Simcoe left Canada in 1796. Under date of 1794 we read, "at the head of Lake Ontario, about fifty miles west from Newark, a small town is laid out and stores are building, being a central place between Newark, York, and Detroit; from thence a road of twenty-two miles is cut to the Grand River, and crosses that river about fifty miles above its entrance into Lake Erie." The Town is Dundas, and the road a part of Dundas Street, crossing the Grand River below the forks, where is Paris. Apparently Schoerg and Betzner took this road from Ancaster to the Grand River, and then followed up the Grand River.* The first four horse team, later in 1800, probably came across Beverly Township by the road cut out by Ward and Smith. Parts of Dundas Street west of the Grand River were also opened in Governor Simcoe's time, but London did not become a settlement until about 1820. In 1788, an American by name of Asa Danforth, made a contract with the Upper Canada Government to complete Dundas Street from Kingston to Ancaster, which he did in three years. East of Toronto the road was for many years called Danforth Road.

J. G. Chewett's map of 1819 is the first I have found to show any road in the Dundas vicinity north of Dundas Street. This shows a road diagonally across Beverly Township on past Galt to Preston, the main road, Galt to Dundas, to-day. The road across Beverly Tp. was in the early days a difficult one. A large part of it was through swamps; there is frequent mention of its hardships. Winter, with good sleighing, was the best time for heavy hauling. For the first few years Waterloo settlers had to travel this road for their milling back and forth to Dundas, although, according to Eby, John Miller built a small grist mill in Galt, the first in the county, as early as 1802. The need was better provided for in 1807, when John Erb erected his first mill on the Speed River in Preston. The Beverly Road continued as the main highway to and from Waterloo County and the lake port at Dundas, and saw much heavy freighting until the building of the railways in the fifties.

Scobie's map of 1851 shows large road development. The Beverly Road is continued, forking at Preston, the north branch leading to Breslau and on to Elora, the west and north branch to the Grand River, and on to Berlin (Kitchener), Waterloo and north to Woolwich Township. Four approximately parallel stems lead west from the Preston-Waterloo road; three of them known as Erb's Road from Waterloo west, Snyder's road through New Hamburg, and Bliehms Road. the Huron road was the main road from Galt through Haysville and on to Goderich. From Hamilton there was a direct road, still known as the stone road, to Guelph and on to Lake Huron. Smith's Canada, published in 1852, also gives fair road maps of Upper Canada. As early as 1841 there were nearly 6000 miles of post roads in Upper Canada. There were regular stages routes on all the main roads. Galt had daily stages to Hamilton and Guelph until the beginning of the Great Western Railway traffic. The Preston, Berlin, and Waterloo stage continued to run, latterly only as a Great Western Railway connection to Berlin (Kitchener), until 1882, when the old Great Western and Grand Trunk united. From Berlin there was a stage line to Waterloo, Elmira, and Glenallen; and one to Crosshill maintained until recent years.

The main route of the U. E. Loyalists to Upper Canada was by water. They came largely from the states of New York and New Jersey. This route was by the Hudson River to the inlet of the Mohawk River eight miles above Albany, then by the Mohawk to Fort Stanwix, now Rome, New York. From here there was a portage of one mile, as given in a map in Knox's Historical Journal, to Wood Creek which leads to Oneida Lake, then down the Oswego River, outlet of Oneida Lake, to Oswego on Lake Ontario. General Amherst took an army over this route, from Albany to Oswego, in the summer of 1760. Caniff says this was by far the most commonly travelled way taken by those who came into Canada after the close of the (Revolutionary) war. It is also stated, 1796, that the chief part of the trade between New York and Lake Ontario was by this way. Another route was to continue further up the Mohawk to Canada Creek, then portage to the Black River and so on to Lake Ontario at Sackett's Harbour. The Black River can also be reached from further up the Hudson River, and there were other less used routes.

The first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes was a little boat built by La Salle at Fort Frontenac, now Kingston, in 1678. The following year, in 1679, La Salle built the "Griffon" at Black Rock, the first sailing vessel on Lake Erie.

And here there may be interpolated a short account of Black Rock ferry, the chief place of crossing into Canada of the Pennsylvania settlers. This is believed to have been the first regularly maintained crossing on western waters above the cataract of Niagara. Possibly there was an earlier one at Detroit.

Black Rock which gave its name to the town, now a part of Buffalo, was a natural landing or place, a large black rock, extending 100 feet wide, 100 feet or more into the river, and backward into the sand of the beach, with surface 4 feet above the water. The boats were scows propelled by sweeps, large oars operated by men standing, or stepping back and forth. In 1800, one O'Neill ran the ferry and lived in a log hut near the rock. The ferry was discontinued during the war of 1812. In 1826 a horse power boat began operating. It is described as having a horizontal wheel the width of the boat, probably a stern wheel like those on western river steam boats, with horses treading on the sides. In 1840 horse power was succeeded by steam. The rock was finally blasted away to make room for the Erie Canal entrance. this is separated from the river by an embankment wall, extending upstream to the lake level.

Black Rock at first competed with Buffalo as a lake harbor. Here was built the "Walk in the Water," the first steam boat on Lake Erie, in 1818. From Black Rock vessels had to be towed up the current into the lake. This was done by yokes of oxen, called by sailors the "horn breeze." Even the "Walk in the Water" had to be so assisted.

The first two steam boats on Lake Ontario were the "Ontario" and the "Frontenac," both built in 1816, the former at Sackett's Harbour and the latter at Earnesttown on the Canadian side of the lake. Both began service in 1817, the Ontario in April and the Frontenac in June. The Ontario was the first steam vessel placed in water subject to a swell. It was built under a grant from the heirs of Robert Fulton. The weight of the paddle wheels and shaft was relied on to keep the latter in its bearings. On the first trip there was considerable sea, the water lifted the paddle wheels, the shaft left its bearings, and the paddle boxes were torn away. Repairs included a device for keeping the shaft in its bearings. The Frontenac was the larger vessel of the two. It had a deck length of 170 feet, and was of 500 tons burden. The cost of the Frontenac is said to have been 15,000 Pounds. by 1840 there were 50 steamships and a large fleet of sailing vessels on Lake Ontario, and lake transportation was of foremost importance until it was superseded by railroads in the mid fifties.

Dundas was for many years the lake port for the district north and west between it and Lake Huron. Here was delivered the grain, produce, lumber, etc., for shipment to the larger markets, and here supplies were received. In winter, when the sleighing was good, lines of teams a mile or more in length could be seen stretching along the Waterloo and Wellington roads. There were numbers of hospitable taverns. A noted one was Brinkley's at what was now known as Bullock's Corners, where the Waterloo and Guelph roads meet. Among other articles of commerce received at the port of Dundas whiskey appears to have been a large item. One record shows 1400 barrels received in one month, for distribution to the taverns and dealers in the back country. In the early days only small boats could be brought through the marsh to Dundas, the sailing vessels laying up in the bay outside, and being there lightered. The need for a canal through the marsh soon developed and a project was formed by one Peter Des Jardins, a native of Picardy in France, for such a canal, and a definite plan evolved. This was about 1819. Years elapsed before the work was undertaken, and meanwhile its originator, after whom the canal was named, died in 1827. It appears to have been mostly completed in 1832, but work of enlargement, and of proper terminal basin at Dundas, continued. It was not until 1837 that the formal opening of this great work, as it was then considered, took place. Both steamers and sailing vessels used the port of Dundas. In 1857 an open draw bridge of the Great Western Railway, over the canal at the edge of Hamilton, caused the memorable railway wreck, in which among many others, two Waterloo County men were killed, the cars dropping into the canal. With railway traffic and the growth of Hamilton as a harbour, the business of the port of Dundas declined. It continued in a desultory manner until about 1865, and for years after that for pleasure boats and other small craft. The Burlington Canal, the entrance from the lake into Burlington Bay, was completed in 1832, the contract having been let by the government in 1823. This is in place of the natural outlet which was insufficient for navigation. The Burlington Canal continued as an important channel of lake navigation, to the port of Hamilton; but of the old Des Jardins canal the main visible evidence consists of broken lines of piling extending across the marsh, while Dundas, practically entirely inland, has long ceased to be a lake port.


*See 1914 Report W. H. S. †See frontispiece map.

*Ezra Eby.

†Hall's Travels, Canada and United States, 1816–1817.

*Mistake by map publisher, should be Chewett.

*Recollections of Early Waterloo, Rev. A. B. Sherk, 1915 Report W. H. S. p. 13.

†History of Preston, Otto Klotz, 1917 Report W. H. S. p. 24.

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1963 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1963. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.