THE HURON ROAD
The Canada Company was organized in London in 1824, largely through the efforts of John Galt, traveller, novelist and man of affairs. The purpose of the Company was colonization in Upper Canada, the acquiring of land from the Canadian Government and selling in suitable parcels to settlers to be drawn mainly from the old country, England, Scotland and Ireland. In December 1826 Sir Peregrine Mainland, Lieut.-Governor, issued a proclamation authorizing the Canada Company to commence operations in Upper Canada.
John Galt was born in Ayrshire in Scotland in 1779, and received his early education in Irvine, his native place, and in Greenock. In 1804 he went to London. He tried business, also law, without success. A British firm sent him to the Mediterranean on commercial investigations and he also travelled largely on the Continent. Returning to London he came into notice as a writer, and from 1820 on as a novelist. In 1826 he first came to America as secretary and chief local officer of the Canada Company. In 1827 he founded Guelph, long the headquarters of the Company. In 1829, after quitting the service of the Company he returned to England and fully resumed his occupation as a writer. Incidentally there is to be said that the municipality of Galt, not in Canada Company Lands, was so named in honor of his school friend, John Galt, by the Hon. William Dickson, proprietor of Block 1 Grand River Indian Lands, later the townships of North and South Dumfries.
While there were holdings in other parts of the province the main bloc of the Canada Company's lands was a triangular area, known as the Huron Tract, with truncated apex at the westerly limit of Wilmot township and large base extending about 60 miles along Lake Huron, the north and south extremities respectively being Colborne township in Huron and Bosanquet in Lambton County, the whole containing over a million acres. Two comparatively narrow strips extended across Wilmot township nothing in Waterloo township which had long before passed to other owners and most of the township of Guelph was included. Guelph, the administration centre, and Goderich, lake port, at east and west extremities of the Company's lands, were from the beginning the principal places.
The lands of the Canada Company were a vast tract of virgin forest and swamp. There were the rivers, which could more or less be traversed by canoe, and some Indian trails, but no other facilities of communication. Contrary to his associates, who held that settlers should come in first, Galt advocated roads as a necessary means of access. He early planned a road from Guelph to Goderich, thus connecting the two principal places of the Company and traversing the land from its eastern extremity to the lake front. One difficulty was that the Company did not want to spend much money for this purpose, nor in general.
In his autobiography John Galt says: "Of one thing at this time (1828) I do not hesitate to say I was proud, and with good reason, too. I caused a road to be opened through the forest of the Huron Tract, nearly 100 miles in length, by which an overland communication was established, for the first time, between the two great lakes, Huron and Ontario. The scheme was carried into effect by Mr. Pryor. All the woodmen that could be assembled from the settlers to be employed, an explorer of the line to go at their head, then two surveyors with compasses, after them a band of blazers to mark the trees in the line, then the woodmen to fell the trees, the rear brought up with wagons with provisions. In this order they proceeded cutting their way through the forest until they reached Lake Huron, then turned back to clear off the fallen timber.
"For this undertaking I was only allowed £3,000., a sum prodigiously inadequate and therefore the work was imperfectly accomplished; but I paid part in money and part in land at a certain price. The cost was nearly £5,000., there was upwards of £1,900. profit by sale of land. One morning 40 men were afflicted with ague. The directors did not allow hiring of a doctor. I ordered a surgeon to be employed as clerk and gave him compensation for his skill."
Absalom Shade, member for Galt, said in the Upper Canada Legislature (1881) that the Canada Company had paid £43. per mile for cutting and clearing out a road one chain in width from Wilmot township to Goderich; that the tender for the same work at £40. had been rejected because the person tendering had refused to receive three quarter payment in land and that the person doing the work had accepted that condition; that causeways for which the company paid 15 shillings per rod, giving three quarters in land, had been tendered for at 10 shillings cash.
A picturesque figure in the early history of the Canada Company was William Dunlop, a Scotchman, British army surgeon and as such active in Upper Canada in the war of 1812 and later in India. In 1826 he was appointed Warden of Forests for the Canada Company and made his second voyage to Canada where he became at once one of the most efficient assistants of John Galt. Physically Dunlop and Galt were a great pair, both exceptionally tall, Dunlop, of Herculean strength; with hair an extreme red, while Galt's was black as that of a raven. Dunlop on Galt's instructions made an exploration trip from Guelph to Goderich early in 1827. With him were John Brant, son of the Mohawk chief, and Surveyor Macdonald, who laid out Guelph. They emerged on the shore of Lake Huron at the mouth of what was called the Red River, renamed by Dunlop the Mainland in honor of the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, and here, the place soon named Goderich, Dunlop made his home for the rest of his life. Galt and a small party proceeded overland to Penetanguishene where they took a sort of war vessel, the "Bee", placed at their disposal, up Georgian Bay and around the Bruce Peninsula, then skirted the shore of Lake Huron until they came to a river and saw a log hut, which housed Dunlop's party.
Galt's charge when he returned to Guelph was to find a contractor to cut the Colonization Road, as it was called, from Wilmot to Goderich. The route was from Guelph to Hespeler (called New Hope until 1857) and Preston, then up the steep hill and straight westward to the Grand River, at Bechtel's where there was a bridge built by Preston to facilitate trade from the west to that village. Klutz speaks of this bridge in his history of Preston published by the Waterloo Historical Society in 1917. It was carried away by floods about 1865 and never replaced. The crossing is still somewhat used as a ford. The road continued beyond the river up the steep west bank on to Strasbourg and Haysville. About six miles beyond Haysville it turned northward, then followed the township line, about a mile, to a point just west of the Nith river bridge on the present Provincial Highway No. 7, thence along it and along Highway No. 8 through Stratford, Mitchell, Seaforth and Clinton, to Goderich.
From Guelph to the point spoken of in the west limit of Wilmot township, existing roads mainly were made use of, but from there westward it was new work, and for this Galt was seeking a contractor. The direct route, west through Kitchener and New Hamburg, was not available until some years later. Another notable figure now appears on the scene, Anthony Van Edmond, a native Dutchman of the noble family of Egmont of Holland. His country being under Napoleonic domination when he became of military age, Van Edmond served in the French armies, was in a number of battles and finally took part in the Moscow campaign. Later he was in Wellington's army at the Battle of Waterloo.
In 1819, at the age of about 48, Van Edmond decided to emigrate to America with his family. He settled in Pennsylvania and was active there for 8 years, as farmer and storekeeper. Then he moved to Upper Canada and located in Waterloo County. He was thrifty and had by this time, with what he brought to America and accumulated since, fairly become a man of property.
Later in the same year he came to Canada, 1827, Van Edmond made the acquaintance of John Galt, in Guelph, and soon had dealings with him. Galt had as yet found no one who was willing to take the Colonization Road contract with payment largely in Canada Company land. This requirement suited Van Edmond who was ready to invest in land. His tender, though materially higher than a previous one, in which payment was wanted all in money, was accepted, and soon the work began, with winter the most favorable season for cutting and clearing off the heavy timber.
The contract was from the Wilmot Township line westward as already spoken of. Van Edmond as contractor and the Company, as represented by Galt, agreed that the contractor should construct, or rather cut out, a road of approximately fifty-five miles, 4 rods (one chain) wide. The whole was in charge of a supervising officer, Mr. Pryor, and the Company also supplied the surveyors, Macdonald and Strickland. The laborers Van Edmond drew from the settlements wherever he could get them, Scotch, Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch and Germans, a motley crew. It is on record that a number came from Woolwich and other parts of Waterloo County. The contract, Wilmot line to Goderich, was roughly completed in 1828, but it took years to make the road a fairly passable highway. A good deal of it was through swamps and this at first was rough corduroy.
One stipulation was that the contractor should erect three houses of accommodation for the use of incoming settlers on their way; one in the Township of South Easthope, one in Ellice and one three miles beyond the present town of Seaforth. These houses as taverns no doubt left much to be desired. A writer in 1828 describes them as three shanties. Nevertheless they were much better than nothing and to a creditable extent fulfilled their purpose of assistance to settlers locating on the Company's lands. On its part the Company granted the contractor some thousands of acres of land on both sides of the road, in the present counties of Perth and Huron, and a cash bonus for each of the three inns, forty, fifty and sixty pounds respectively; a condition being that travellers should be entertained at prices prevailing in the older settlements.
Most of the land Col. Van Edmond later sold. For his own use and homestead, which he began to occupy in 1828, he selected a generous acreage a short distance east of the present Clinton. Here he erected a combined house and tavern and proceeded to clear the land. By spring, 1829, he had one hundred acres cleared and ready to cultivate. This was the first farm on the Huron Road. The same year it produced the first regular crop of wheat in the Huron Tract and the first harvesting was celebrated by a dinner which Van Edmond gave to Dunlop and other friends from Goderich
While the Huron Road was open by the end of 1828 it was years before it became tolerably passable for vehicles. As late as 1888 a Scotch gentleman, Patrick Shirreff, traversed it from Guelph to Goderich. He was pleased with Van Edmond's tavern where he found "a wealthy looking place for the country with a store of miscellaneous goods, large barns and a tolerably good garden." He describes the roads as two thirds corduroy or crossway and that occasionally a large tree had been left standing in the middle of the road. Of the size of trees in the Huron Tract a farmer's dugout made of a pine trunk gives an idea. The dugout was 26 feet long and 8 feet 9 inches in the beam, requiring a log of more than 4 feet in diameter. As to the corduroy on the Huron Road Shirred goes on to say that most travellers speak of it with horror, but that without meaning to praise it he could say that it was the best and smoothest portion of the road. The roots projecting from the stumps in a slanting direction kept the wheels and axles of the wagons moving up and down like the beam of a steam engine.
The Huron Road was from the beginning a main road. Gradually it became improved, eventually to a good macadam road. For many years it was the main stage route. Stages from Galt ran regularly to Goderich, and Galt, the main trading centre for the whole district westward to Lake Huron, drew trade all along the road, from as far as Goderich. The road continued as a stage route until the Buffalo and Lake Huron Railway was opened through to Goderich, in 1858.
Since 1928 the Huron Road has been a paved highway all the way from Wilmot to Goderich. The last section, Seaforth to Clinton, was officially opened on the 3rd of September that year on which date there took place the centennial celebration of the Huron Road. The ceremonies began at Freyfogel's east of Shakespeare, and continued at Stratford, Seebach's, Mitchell, Harpurhey, Clinton and Goderich. (See Waterloo Historical Society Annual Report for 1928) . A tape was cut at Harpurhey by the Ontario Deputy Minister of Highways, Hon. R. M. Smith, thus officially opening the last paved part between Stratford and Goderich. And various memorials along the road, now Number 7 Provincial Highway to Stratford and Number 8 Provincial Highway from there to Goderich, were unveiled.
At Freyfogel's about a mile east of Shakespeare there is a cairn bearing a tablet with the following inscription, "Erected 1929 to commemorate opening of the Huron Road by the Canada Company, 1828. This marks place of log building occupied by Sebastian and Mary Freyfogel, first settlers in Perth County, 1829." Six miles east of Mitchell a cairn, on the north west corner of a crossroad, surmounted by a log and axe in stone, bears the following inscription, "Erected in memory of Andrew and Eva Seebach, the first settlers in Ellice Township, 1828." In Mitchell there is a cairn just across the street from where Col. John Hicks built the first tavern in the settlement. The inscription is: "This cairn erected in memory of the first settlers, Colonel John and Elizabeth Hicks, 1837, by the citizens of Mitchell, 1928." Another cairn east of Clinton, on Van Edmond's farm is inscribed: "This cairn erected in 1928 in commemoration of the opening of the Huron Road by the Canada Company in 1828. Near this spot Anthony Van Edmond, who had the contract to build the Huron Road, had his residence and grew the first wheat in the Huron Tract." At Goderich a cairn was erected, in Harbor Park, on the bluff just above the harbor. The tablet, supplied by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, with a commemorative inscription, was duly unveiled. It was later transferred to one of two stone pillars which form the eastern gateway to the town.
W. H. BREITHAUPT