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Red Road Warriors

Two men tried to be first to cross Canada by car. Result: class warfare.

By Daniel Francis 1 Mar 2007 |

Daniel Francis is the author of L.D.: Mayor Louis Taylor and the Rise of Vancouver and Red Light Neon: A History of Vancouver's Sex Trade. His January Tyee article "Welcome World, We've Done Nothing" examined the failure of Canadian lawmakers to address the challenge of street prostitution.

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At the end of the first attempted trans-Canada car trip, Atlantic water is poured into the Pacific.
  • A Road for Canada
  • Daniel Francis
  • Stanton, Atkins and Dosil

[Editor's note: In A Road for Canada, Vancouver historian Daniel Francis traces the creation of the Trans-Canada Highway, and in the process explores national politics, social history, and the evolution of the car. The book is also a very elegantly designed visual treat, from a small publisher, Stanton Atkins and Dosil, that's produced a few such volumes, including last year's award-winning The Waterfront, a maritime history of Vancouver. In this excerpt, two men embark on a quest for the Todd Medal offered to the first to cross Canada from coast to coast by car. There was lots of mud, and one man who didn't want to get any on himself.]

Thomas Wilby was a British journalist, formerly a foreign correspondent, who had settled with his wife in New York where he began leading motor tours and writing about them. In 1912, he decided that it would make a good story if he were able to drive the "all-Red" route from Atlantic to Pacific; that is, a route totally within Canada (which, like every other member of the British Empire, was coloured red on maps). He approached different car companies with his idea, and the Reo Motor Car Company agreed to supply him with a car and driver, a 23-year-old mechanic from Indiana named Jack Haney. Haney began working for Reo in Lansing, Michigan, in 1905, about the same time as pioneer manufacturer Ransom E. Olds established the company. A few years later Olds opened a Canadian subsidiary in St. Catharines, Ontario, and Haney moved north to become the branch plant's chief mechanic. He was the obvious person to accompany Wilby on his cross-country adventure.

The Reo Special Touring Car was a high, handsome vehicle, state-of-the-art for its time, with wooden spoke wheels and a 30-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. But it had its inconveniences. It had to be cranked to start, and when darkness approached the driver had to stop to light the acetylene headlamps by hand. There were no side windows to keep out the elements, and one foot pedal was both clutch and brake. In those days garages were few and far between so motorists carried their own tool kit. Haney had fitted out two trunks with reserve gas tanks, tins of oil, spare inner tubes and a pump, chains for the wheels, hooks for hauling out of the mud, and a block and tackle that would turn out to be more useful than he could have anticipated.

Wilby and Haney were a mismatched pair and soon grew to loathe each other. The 45-year-old Englishman was a pompous snob with an eye for the limelight. When he arrived in Halifax to begin the trip, his baggage amounted to a single change of socks, serving notice that he expected to be waited on by his driver, whom he asked to address him as "Sir." In the book Wilby published about the trip, A Motor Tour Through Canada, he did not once mention the younger man by name. Always he was "the chauffeur." Nor did Wilby feel any obligation to help his driver when the Reo bogged down in the mud or pitched over into a ditch, preferring to scribble in his notebook while his partner did the heavy lifting. Not long into the trip, Haney was confiding to his diary, "I am heartily sick of my companion and will be mightily glad when the trip is over. He is too damn selfish." But like it or not, the two were stuck with each other for the duration.

On the Wrong Side of the Road

Canada in 1912 was a country enjoying an unprecedented era of prosperity and growth. The population in the previous decade had jumped by more than a third to about 7.2 million people and was still growing. These new Canadians came mostly from the United States and Europe, including, for the first time, sizeable numbers of Germans, Scandinavians, Ukrainians and Slavic peoples. In other words, not only was the country larger, it was also much more ethnically diverse. The economy was firing on all cylinders, fuelled by foreign investment and exports of wheat, forest products and minerals. Canadians remained in the grip of a railway-building mania as the Canadian Pacific was joined by two other transcontinental lines. In the arts, humorist Stephen Leacock published his satire of small-town life, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, in 1912, and the coterie of artists who would become known as the Group of Seven were working out their unique style in Toronto. Suffragists were campaigning for the women's franchise, while militant workers wanted a fairer share of the proceeds from the new industrial economy. Robert Borden became prime minister following his defeat of Wilfrid Laurier on an anti-free trade platform in the 1911 election. The most contentious political issue facing him was the navy, and whether Canada should even have one. In sum, Canada in 1912 was a country feeling its oats but not quite sure yet how to harness the forces unleashed by industrialism, sudden population growth and prolonged economic expansion. One of these forces was the motor car itself.

After dipping their rear wheels in the Atlantic and collecting some of the water in a flask for delivery to Vancouver, Wilby and Haney departed Halifax on Aug. 27. The first challenge for Haney was to accustom himself to driving on the left-hand side of the road. The rest of North America drove on the right (except for British Columbia), but Nova Scotia would not switch over for another 11 years.

The expedition began after six weeks of steady rain had turned the roads to mud. It was like driving through heavy pancake batter. "It was simply a case of get up early, plow through mud and water all day and go to bed as soon as possible," Haney wrote in his diary.

A Motor Tour Through Canada, despite its breezy title, describes all manner of mishaps and misadventures. Climbing a hill outside of Grand Falls, New Brunswick, the Reo's gas tank ran dry. By blowing into it, Haney managed to force the remaining fumes into the fuel line and kept the engine going until the car crested the top of the hill and was able to coast into town. Other hills were too steep to negotiate in low gear so Haney and his rider went up in reverse, sometimes adding the weight of extra passengers for the necessary traction. Corduroy roads made of logs laid crosswise in the mud were a special challenge for the car's primitive suspension. The Reo had to be hauled across streams, through lakes of mud, and out of ditches and sand piles. And that was before things really got bad. At North Bay, Ontario, the road disappeared entirely, so the expedition continued to Sudbury by rail. Beyond Sudbury the road reappeared along the north shore of Lake Huron, though lack of bridges made it necessary to hitch a ride on a tugboat part of the way. After taking three hours to get hauled out of a sinkhole by a team of horses, the Reo pulled into Sault Ste. Marie, twenty days after leaving Halifax, only to discover that the ferry to the Lakehead had left without them.

Swamps and bridgeless rivers

There was no road across the top of Lake Superior. Local advice was "if you wish to save the car and to arrive at the Pacific with a few pieces of its mechanism still clinging together, keep out of the wilderness of New Ontario. The machine will immolate itself on the first tree stump that blocks the path, or grind itself to junk on the rocks, or drown itself in the swamps and bridgeless rivers."

A motorist wishing to drive westward had to dip below the lake into the United States. Wilby knew that any hope of completing an all-Red route purely by road was dashed, but he was determined to stay north of the border anyway. Hitching a ride on a lake freighter, he, Haney and the Reo made the 700 kilometre crossing to Fort William where they discovered there was no road to Manitoba either, so it was back onto the train for the run to Winnipeg.

On the prairies the expedition ran into a new obstacle. Roads were plentiful, but they were composed of fine dirt that turned to a thick, tenacious gumbo in the rain. And it had been raining all summer. It was often safer to avoid the muddy main road and keep to a side trail through the grass. At one point west of Brandon, the travellers wandered into a swamp and the Reo sank up to its axles. With the help of a local pilot, who was along to ensure that this sort of thing didn't happen, they jacked up the car and literally constructed a road out of the slough with wheat sheaves, boulders and brush. On they went, meandering their way along old wagon roads and rutted buffalo trails, following telegraph poles and the rail line so they wouldn't get lost. Every once in a while, Wilby forgot the trials and tribulations of the road and turned his attention to the country through which he was passing. The Cypress Hills moved him to his most lyrical outburst:

"The day was superb. A rim of purple-blue hills rimmed the West and flanked us on both sides. Little white houses with red roofs stood out here and there against the blue sky. A long train snaked a line of black across the pinkish earth, and occasionally a badger [actually a gopher] peeped out of his yawning and dangerous burrow in the dun roadway...In the short grass we found the ineffaceable eternal trail of the departed monarch -- a dark brown line a foot or so wide and several inches deep, running parallel north to south...Pencil lines in the vastness of the country, but their very persistence seemed to prove the reality of the Red Man's dream of the buffalo's return."

When it's October in the Rockies

On Oct. 1, Wilby had expected to be in Vancouver; instead, the expedition spent the day crossing southern Alberta, their greatest challenge, the mountain ranges of British Columbia, still ahead.

The Reo crossed the Rockies via the southerly Crowsnest Pass, fighting a stiff headwind. The grades were so steep that Wilby and Haney spent most of the crossing out on the road pushing. Coming down the other side was just as slow; they had to keep stopping to allow the brakes to cool down. The track they followed was narrow and rock strewn and filled with the now-familiar potholes and mud sloughs. It was almost with relief that they saw the road peter out at Yahk and had to resort once again to the railway. This time they just drove the Reo onto the tracks, risking that no trains were due from the opposite direction. It was agreed that if a locomotive appeared, they would save themselves by jumping free and sacrifice the car. In the event, they made the three-hour trip to Kitchener, the spot where the road resumed, in great discomfort but without mishap.

The rest of British Columbia passed in a blur of ferry rides, twisting detours, precipitous canyons and near disasters. "We pursued a road that followed the line of least resistance," Wilby wrote, "and took us more often north and south than westward...The grades beggar description, and there are sheer drops down to the canyon stream from the narrow ribbon of the road 3,000 feet above sea level which have a knack of getting on the nerves..." Along the Fraser River, on a tortuous mountain road after the sun had gone down, the acetylene headlamps ran out of gas. They couldn't stop in the middle of nowhere and there was no point in turning back. Stretching out on his stomach along the car's running board, their young guide held an oil lamp close to the edge of the road, which dropped away into a deep canyon. "Inch by inch we crept on," recalled Wilby. "Moment by moment the poor fellow grew stiffer. A sudden jolt and it seemed as if we must throw him down the bank." This went on for 15 nerve-wracking kilometres until the trio arrived safely at Lytton.

Finally, on Oct. 14, the Reo pulled into Vancouver, "stained with the evidence of strenuous travel, covered with mud and oil and grease" as a reporter for the Sun newspaper put it. In a speech at a reception in his honour, Wilby declared that Canada would not be a "true nation" until the Canadian Highway was built, then it was off to Vancouver Island for the official end of the journey at Alberni where the first signpost had been planted five months earlier. But as great as their accomplishment was, Wilby and Haney could not claim the Highway Association's gold medal. They had interrupted their drive at several points with ferry and train rides, and once they had been forced to take a short detour through the United States. The Todd Medal was still up for grabs.  [Tyee]