It is a defining aspect of our country, on par with the railway that helped unite Canada during its first few decades. It is the Trans-Canada Highway, and it is a road that nearly every Canadian has travelled at least once in their lives.
Running through every single province, from the Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean, the highway is one of the longest routes of its type on the planet. At the time of its completion, it was the most lengthy uninterrupted highway on the planet.
One bit of information many don’t realize is that the highway is actually two highways, both recognized as the Trans Canada. The two routes combined measure 8,030 kilometres, with the southern portion making up most of that at 2,960 kilometres.
There are many interesting aspects related to the Trans-Canada Highway, with many interesting stories to tell. The best place to begin, of course, is with its history.
The History of The Trans-Canada
As soon as the first automobile was built and driven in Canada, the need for a nationwide road became quickly apparent. When Thomas Wilby and Jack Haney drove across Canada in 1912, the first people to do so (well sort of…), Wilby would speak about the need for a national highway to join the provinces together.
It would be 50 years before the highway would officially open.
Everything officially kicked off in 1949 with the passing of the Trans-Canada Highway Act. That act, which came into effect on Dec. 10 of that year, put forward a sum of $150 million for the construction, with the provinces contributing the other $150 million. The total cost of $300 million would be $3.2 billion in 2017 dollars. Each province would sign the agreement over the next few years to build the Trans-Canada in their own borders.
- British Columbia; Signed on April 24, 1950
- Alberta: Signed on April 24, 1950
- Saskatchewan: Signed on April 24, 1950
- Manitoba: Signed on April 24, 1950
- Ontario: Signed on April 24, 1950
- Quebec: Signed on Oct. 27, 1960
- New Brunswick: Signed on May 27, 1950
- Nova Scotia: Signed on May 15, 1952
- Prince Edward Island: Signed on April 24, 1950
- Newfoundland: Signed on June 27, 1950
In 1950, construction began on the highway and the goal of having one long paved road through the country by 1967 was set. In 1962, the highway opened, albeit with many unpaved sections amounting to 50 per cent of the total route. In 1967, most of the highway was paved and in 1971, it was officially marked as completed.
There, the complete history. Well…not exactly. There are several communities along the Trans-Canada, all of whom were heavily impacted by the building of the Trans-Canada. No detailing of the history of the Trans-Canada would be complete if we didn’t go deeper into that history.
Banff is now known as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Canada, and a big part of that is the fact that the Trans-Canada Highway goes straight through the resort community. Beginning in 1948, downhill skiing began to take off in the area and the first chair-lift in the Rockies was installed near the community. By 1958, Banff had a gondola and soon after the Trans-Canada Highway was built through the community, which helped to make the skiing areas around the community highly profitable.
The Tough Bits
Building the Trans-Canada Highway was not always easy, especially in certain sections of the country. The two most difficult routes to construct were found in the 265-kilometre stretch from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa, Ont., and the 147-kilometre stretch over the Roger’s Pass from Golden B.C. to Revelstoke B.C.
On the Ontario side of things, through that long stretch, a right-of-way had to be cleared through over half that stretch of highway and 25 bridges had to be built. Within this section, muskeg was often 50 feet deep and thousands of tonnes of rock had to be blasted to make way for the highway. It would take until 1960 before that stretch was opened to the public.
Over in British Columbia, the route followed the Roger’s Pass route that had been abandoned as a stretch for trains because it was far too steep to run them on. The stretch went through an area that had many rockfalls through the year, and would get 200 feet of snow in the winter. The stretch was finished in 1962. One 14.5-kilometre stretch between Golden and Field required the blasting of two million tons of rock, along with another two million tons of Earth being removed.
Through the Roger’s Pass section, a total of 825 metres of snow sheds were constructed to protect against snow avalanches.
While several provinces had tough times getting their road built, especially Ontario, Newfoundland and British Columbia, one Prairie Province had a very easy time of it. Only a few years after the Act was signed, Saskatchewan became the very first province to complete their section of the Trans-Canada Highway. Completing the portion through their province in 1957, the section going through Saskatchewan amounted to 654 kilometres in total.
The Official Opening
When the Roger’s Pass section was completed, the Trans-Canada Highway was officially declared as open. The British Columbia government had a ceremony to celebrate the highway on July 30, 1962, followed by an official ceremony by the federal government on Sept. 3, 1962. Prime Minister John D. Diefenbaker was on hand at the Roger’s Pass to officially open the highway.
While the Trans-Canada Highway completion was a monumental achievement, it was actually boycotted by a few provinces. The premiers of of British Columbia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland did not attend the ceremony because of a dispute over funding that was being provided by the federal government.
At this point, the cost of the project had increased to $1.1 billion, or $9 billion in today’s funds.
Thousands of people worked on the Trans-Canada Highway, helping to build it and make it a part of the Canadian landscape. Here are just a few of those individuals.
- Joe Ruete: Born in 1943 and growing up in Minnitaki, Ontario, Joe spent most of his time helping his father on the farm. A lover of trapping, hunting and fishing, he would often spend
his free days out in the bush looking for wildlife. As a teenager, with the Trans-Canada being constructed near where he lived, he chose to help out. Working to help pave it through the summer of 1959, he would return to school in 1960 and leave school that same year. In 1964, he married Connie Titze in Vermillion Bay and built a home on some land. Beginning the year he left high school, Ruete began working for the Dryden Paper Company, something he did for many years. Having two children with Connie, Joe became a skidder operator for Reed in 1974. He would earn his pilots licence and move to Eagle Lake in the 1970s. In 1978, he was elected to council for Machin, Ont. and would remain on council for many years. He was also the deputy fire chief for the community.
- Martin Sather: Born in Norway in 1931, Martin Sather came to Canada in 1949 at the advice of his uncle. Working for his uncle and completing his grade 10, he began working for Bird’s Construction in Webb, Saskatchewan. He would continue to help his uncle Bert on his farm each spring with seeding and each fall with harvest. Beginning in 1956, Martin began to work on the Trans-Canada Highway, helping to build a bridge west of Antelope. Following that, he began to raise turkeys, beginning with 1,100 and eventually having 4,700 by 1959. Now married with children, Martin continued to work the farm and had over 100 steer at one point.
- Calvin Rosenau: Born in 1910 in South Dakota, Calvin would come with his parents to
Saskatchewan in 1917. Quitting school in 1923, he began to work on the farm of his parents before travelling to Ontario during The Great Depression to find work in bush camps doing road construction. As the 1950s came along, he took on a job as a foreman for LS and M Construction. It was there that he helped to build the Trans-Canada in the Swift Current area. In the 1960s, he would become a full-time farmer in the Keeler area. Working by selling cattle and doing grain farming, he also worked as a carpenter in several towns. He would eventually begin working on the construction of the potash mine in the Lanigan, Saskatchewan area. With his wife Emily, he would have several children and enjoy many happy memories. In the late 1960s, they would move to Moose Jaw and Calvin would commute to the farm. In 1979, his brother took over the farm. In 1981, he found he had two tumors in his brain. On July 21, 1981, he would pass away.
- James Martin: Born in 1922 in Ituna, Saskatchewan, James grew up on the family farm and attended school for ten years before going to work on the family farm for five years. In 1945, he went out to Ontario to begin working harvest for another of farms before returning home one year later. For a time in 1950, he worked for Ramsay and Bird Construction in Regina, helping to pave Highway 35. That experience would help him in 1951 when he worked with Tomlinson Construction while the Trans Canada was being constructed in the Lake Ripple area. In 1953, he would marry his wife Rhoda and move to Calgary where he found work making oil drilling shelters. In 1958, he earned his welding ticket and would spend the next several decades working in the welding industry in Calgary.
- Walter William Isaacson: Born in Circle, Montana in 1918, Walter Isaacson would come to Canada and marry Irene Dahms in 1940. Two daughters would be born during their marriage. William would be employed by Emil Anderson Construction, and would help in the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway through the area of Geraldton. His brothers would also work with him during that time. In 1942, he helped to construct the Alaska Highway as well. For he next several years, William would work both in farming and in road construction. He would actually spend many winters in the northern Ontario bush working as a bulldozer operator and mechanic, helping to build roads there.
- Ray Isaacson: Born in 1912, and the brother of William, Ray would marry Dorish Dahms and eventually move to Saskatchewan where they would raise their family. During the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway in the are of Long Lac, Ont., he would be there helping to build the road. He would eventually make his way with his family to Toronto where he worked as a foreman at Dulev Plastics. He worked there and on farms for several years before retiring to Sprngside.