History of the Trans Canada Highway

Canada is a new and HUGE country

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, OntarioEarly Explorers (Age of Sail and the Canoe)

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. The French fur traders (courier du bois) canoed up the Saint Lawrence, up the Ottawa, along the Mattawa-French River system to Lake Huron  and west to the mountains, and south to the Gulf of Mexico at Louisiana. At the same time, the British fur traders (under the flag of the Hudson’s Bay Company) had forts along the shores of Hudson’s Bay and canoed southwards on various tributaries as far south as the Great Lakes and west to the Pacific Ocean as far south as Portland, Oregon.

Crossing Canada by Ox cart, Steamship, and Rail

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 when completed in 1885 (see The Last Spike monument, right) brought coast- to-coast travel time to about a week.

the Last Spike monument at Craigellachie, BC
the late 1800s, steamships were bringing 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.

1900s: The Era of Telecommunications

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.

The Rise of the Automobile

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.

Float Plane, inside the Petro-Canadahead office in Calgary

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: How it Changed Canada

World War II and its aftermath put Canadian growth into overdrive. Military airfield were built across the country to support the Commonwealth Air Training Program, which was Canada’s most significant contribution (in addition to at the end of the war, having the world’s 4th largest navy!).  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!).  After the war, Canada and the US teamed up to build the St Lawrence Seaway, to both generate hydro-power for both countries and to connect the industrial base around the Great Lakes with the mineral resources of Canada’s north, and the export markets across the oceans. Canada’s military airfields that stretched from coast to coast were converted to civilian airports.

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
Many folks who were left homeless or nationless after World War II decided to move to Canada, causing Canada’s population to double in the two decades after the war. By 1967, the country’s centennial year, Canada had 20 million people.  That trend continued as European colonial empires fell apart in all parts of the world, and brought Canada even more  from Africa, Asia, South America,  and the Caribbean.

Building Our National Highway

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 voted to join Canada. It became important to connect all the provinces together by highway. The Canso Causeway created a land link between Cape Breton to the Nova Scotia mainland, which sped 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 were still 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 biggest Trans-Canada Construction Challenges

The two sections of greatest difficulty were alongside Lake Superior between Sault Ste Marie and Wawa, 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 (bypassing the Big Bend route, which would be flooded by a new hydro dam on the Columbia River). In Ontario, a right of way through the Algoma wilderness south of Wawa (“The Cap”) needed to be cleared through virgin forest for 98 of the 165 miles and 25 bridges needed to be built, but in September 1960, The Gap 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 Rogers Pass 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.

Newfoundland had just recently joined Confederation, and was moving from a colonial standard to a Canadian standard in many areas of service (education and healthcare being the highest priority).  The last section in Newfoundland (at Pearson’s Peak near Grand Falls) was finished construction  in November 1965.   However, only in 1971 was the highway in Newfoundland deemed to be finished to the standards laid out in the Trans Canada Highway Act in 1949. The province was also transitioning from ferry-based and rail-based transportation network to a car and truck based network. In that transition, the last Newfoundland  railway passenger train was  in 1969, and the last freight rail train was in 1988.

Animal bridges built over twinned sections of the Trans-Canada in Banff National ParkRecent years: Twinning [updated for 2022]

Over 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. Across the Prairies, the twinning i complete, with Alberta (including the National Parks) and the Calgary ring road almost complete ( (Stoney Trail / Highway 201) north by pass is complete, south bypass complete in 2024)  with bypasses built around Moose Jaw, Regina, Portage la Prairie, Brandon and Winnipeg. Quebec is almost complete with just a section south of Riviere du Loup  being finished (2022)  and New Brunswick is fully twinned since 2003.  Nova Scotia is  gradually twinning the Northumberland stretch, working its way north, and Newfoundland is twinning the areas closest to St John’s.

The two provinces with the most challenges are British Columbia and Ontario.

BC has twinned Highway 1 on Vancouver Island and in the Lower Mainland (to Hope), and built the Coquihalla #5 to connect Hope to Kamloops by a twinned route since the Fraser River Canyon does not have terrain suitable for twinning. Between Kamloops and Alberta, there is an aggressive program to twin were the terrain allows it and 3-lane (with alternating passing lanes) where that is not possible. From 2021-2023 there is the $4 billion Kicking Horse Canyon Phase 4 Project to complete the last un-twinned section  east of Glacier National Park.

Ontario has the biggest challenge, with 1,900 kilometres of Highway 17 crossing the province. Ontario has already twinned Highway 17  in eastern Ontario, from the Quebec border west to  Renfrew (and re-designating it as Highway 417), and has twinned bypasses around North Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste Marie, Thunder Bay (the Thunder Bay Expressway) and Kenora. And it’s taken a decade of discussions to start the twinning of Highway between Kenora and the Manitoba border. Ontario is also completing the twinning of Highway 69 (Parry Sound to Sudbury) to extend Highway 400 north from Toronto to Sudbury.