History of the Trans-Canada Highway

Canada is an interesting country. Considering its vast size, as the second largest nation in the world (after Russia,-still), it amazes people from other parts of the world how we are so similar in language and in our daily lives. There are few pronounced regional dialects (the Newfoundland English is the most unique) because—despite its size-this country EXISTS because of efficient transportation. Few areas feel isolated, despite their distance from other parts of the country. We all feel like part of a single country (Quebec may occasionally feel like the exception)
Fort at Fort William, now in Thunder Bay, Ontario
Explorers and settlers arrived in Canada as early as 1500 after sailing only a few weeks from Europe. Fur traders could reach far inland and back by canoe from either the French settlement of Hochelaga (now Montreal) or from the English “factories” along the Hudson’s Bay. Before the railroad, crossing Canada took three months by oxcart, horse and boat, as Sir Sanford Fleming did in 1872 travelling from Toronto to Victoria to determine the course for the proposed trans-continental railway to link to the new province of British Columbia. The railway brought coast to coast travel time to about a week, after 1885.

In the late 1800s, steamships brought European immigrants to Canada in only two weeks, and trains quickly delivered them to the prairies to homestead in Canada’s “Last Best West”. The diverse linguistic and cultural mish-mash melting pot of Canada’s settlers intermingled into a surprising homogenous culture and language. Much credit should go to the public school system which taught immigrants English so they could talk with their neighbours (usually from another country) in a ‘neutral’ third language.
Float Plane, inside the Petro-Canadahead office in Calgary
In the 1900s, the biggest force in Canada’s growth was the rise of telecommunications. The telegraph came with the railway, and moved information to move coast to coast in minutes. Towns and cities soon got newspapers, which created a shared experience in news, opinions, products and fashions. At the turn of the century the telephone began to dominate interpersonal communication, even over long distances. By the 1920s radio gave a common sense of music, professional sports and news, leading to the rapid rise of jazz music, big band and later rock ‘n’ roll. The moving pictures and later the “talkies” meant that Canadians absorbed the influence of American culture.

About that time, the automobile moved into common usage. First mass-produced by Henry Ford in 1903, it enabled the Americans had cross their country from San Francisco to New York in 1906. Canadians had to wait until 1912 when Thomas Wilby crossed from Halifax to Victoria in 2 months, though he covered much of northern Ontario by railcar or on the deck of a steam ship, since there where still no cleared roads there yet. Between the wars, airplanes began to speed transportation in the country and across it. They could fly across the Great Lakes and over mountain ranges in a straight line faster than any land-based transportation. Planes had their biggest impact in Canada’s North where settlements previously several day’s canoe trip or dogsled run from the nearest town were now an hour away by plane. Float planes landing on Canada’s myriad lakes and rivers connected small or isolated communities that could not justify expensive roads and railways.

World War II and its aftermath put Canadian growth into overdrive. The Alaska Highway was built in months to connect isolated Alaska with Edmonton, Alberta to help defend America’s northern outpost against a threat of Japanese invasion. In the 1950s the American government began its massive interstate highway construction program with 4 lane twinned roads in all states (even Hawaii has “interstate” highways!). The jet plane meant it was possible to cross the country in a day, and hop across the Atlantic overnight, and made flying affordable for the middle classes. Television added a new way to communicate over distance, but also created a dramatic way to share experiences, news and emotions. The advent of satellites in the 1960s made it possible to instantly bounce TV signals around the world. It was Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”.
Classic cars of the 1950s
After the war, Canada was bursting at the seams from the millions of new immigrants from all corners of the globe. In the 1950s, the railway was still king in Canada’s transportation system, but the country was working to build and pave roads between the major cities fueled by the post-war growth of automobiles in Canada’s cities. By 1949 the Trans-Canada Highway act was passed by Parliament right after. Newfoundland’s decision to join Canada. It became important to connect all the provinces together by highway, and build the Canso Causeway to join Cape Breton to the Nova Scotia mainland and speed travel and shipping time to Canada’s new island province. By 1956, the federal and provincial government came to a cost-sharing agreement to encourage the provinces to upgrade existing roadways to “Trans-Canada” standards, and receive 90% of the cost of building new stretches to fill gaps in the roadway. This was most notable in mountainous British Columbia, the rugged Canadian Shield north of Lake Superior, and across much of Newfoundland. The goal was to connect all 10 provinces by paved road by 1967, Canada’s centennial year.

By 1955, much of the roadways designated as part of the Trans-Canada was unpaved, and significant sections were not even yet built as a rough roadway:



(Click on links to provincial highway history)

1997 distance*

Unpaved Roads 1955

(50% federal cost sharing)

Non-existent Roads 1955

(90% federal cost sharing)

Newfoundland 948 km 926 km 570 miles 99 km 61 miles
PEI 118 km 31 km 19 miles 11 km 7 miles
Nova Scotia 901 km 68 km 42 miles 50 km 31 miles
New Brunswick 955 km 29 km 18 miles 53 km 39 miles
Quebec 2,869 km n/a n/a n/a n/a
Ontario 4,924 km 1025 km 631 miles 229 km 141 miles
Manitoba 861 km 120 km 74 miles 50 km 31 miles
Saskatchewan 2,114 km 136 km 84 miles 67 km 41 miles
Alberta 3,396 km 81 km 50 miles 47 km 29 miles
BC 5,516 km 317 km 195 miles 112 km 69 miles
National Parks n/a 72 km 44 miles 0 km 0 miles
Territories 1,654 km n/a n/a n/a n/a
Total 24,257 km 2806 km 1727 miles 730 km 449 miles

The total cost for completing this was going to be $212 million (in 1955 dollars).

1997 figures provided by Transport Canada, and includes only the “national highway system”.http://www.tc.gc.ca/pol/en/Report/anre1997/ANNUAL97/TC97_C5d.htm

The Rogers Pass visitor Centre in British ColumbiaThe two sections of greatest difficulty were alongside Lake Superior between Sault Ste Marie, a gap of 265 km (165 mi), and a 147 km (91 mile) section over the Roger’s Pass between Revelstoke and Golden in BC. In Ontario, a right of way needed to be cleared through virgin forest for 98 of the 165 miles and 25 bridges needed to be built, but in September 1960 that stretch was officially opened. The Rogers Pass route followed some of the early tracks of the trans-continental railway, which were abandoned years ago as too steep for trains, and built several “snow sheds” to protect the highway from the many winter avalanches (the area gets about 200 ft of snowfall each year) and rockslides. This stretch was opened in July 1962, and marked the official completion of the Trans-Canada. BC continued work to improve the highway through the canyon along the Fraser River by blasting several tunnels, with the final two opening in 1966. By 1963, according to the accounts of traveler Edward McCourt, most of Newfoundland was still in the process of being paved.

Animal bridges built over twinned sections of the Trans-Canada in Banff National ParkOver recent years, much of the focus has been on “twinning” which puts at two lanes in each direction, divided by a median. This is equivalent to the standards for the US Interstate system. All provinces have twinning programs underway, starting around major population centres. Alberta’s stretch is the most complete (missing a few kilometres in Banff National Park that is under federal jurisdiction and passing through Calgary on a busy city street with many traffic lights). New Brunswick has been aggressive, opening a new stretch in 2003 that lopped an hour off the travel time through the province.