Yesterday, I awoke to a news report about the troubling condition of Toronto’s roads. The extreme cold of the holiday season followed by mild temperatures has increased the number of potholes. “It’s like driving on the moon,” says one driver. Many report damage to their vehicles after plunging a wheel into the abyss.
I reflected on some recent information I’ve collected about the lives of the early settlers. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Canadians have been complaining about state of our roads for years — over two hundred actually, give or take a decade. Our early settlers endured miserable travel conditions. Their lamenting is captured in correspondence shared by Charolette Gray, in her book, Canada A Portrait In Letters.
In 1834, Catharine Parr Trail wrote from her Peterborough, Ontario home, reporting to friends and family in England, about “the badness of roads in this country, the slowness of conveyance, (and) want of proper artifices”. Lady Durham wrote from her Quebec City home in 1834 that she was very near “jolted to pieces” on roads travelling inland from Chauderie Falls. George Child wrote to his mother in 1842 about travelling home after an out of town errand where “the roads were so bad that it took from four o’clock until eleven in going 13 miles”. He stayed in a hotel and tried to continue his journey the next day. The roads were so bad he turned around and went home.
Some might think that snow and heavy winters would create the biggest impediment to transportation, but not so. Horse drawn cutters and dog sleds across land or frozen water facilitated effective travel. A spring thaw and heavy rains created major problems for travelers. Muddy roads resulted, exhausted horses and stuck wagon wheels. Dry roads peppered with potholes and the remains of stumps caused a lot of bumping and jostling of passengers in addition to broken axels and wagon wheels. Corduroy roads, created by laying logs side by side, crossways on the road, solved some problems but created new ones such as a bumpy ride for one. Also, the logs heaved with the freezing and thawing, then eventually gave way to rot. Many preferred to travel by foot or by horseback instead of using a wagon.
Root of the Problem
The early settlers who were awarded land grants, had a contractual obligation to build and maintain roads adjacent to their property. I’m imagining where this duty ranked in the list of survival related tasks like build a home, clear the land, or plant a crop. Removal of trees and stumps was an onerous task in a land thick with timber.
“Pathmasters” were appointed by Upper Canada’s first parliament to oversee road development. Settlers were eventually given the option of paying a fine in lieu of performing road maintenance.
The next time I hit a bump in the road, I will draw a calming breath and be grateful that I don’t have to fix it!
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