The First Canadian Cross-Country Drive

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Way back in 1912, the automobile was still a very new invention and Canada was not exactly known for having paved highways at the time. In fact, throughout the entire country from the Pacific to the Atlantic, up to the Arctic, there was only 16 kilometres of paved road.

Despite this, two men decided to that they wanted to drive across the country and be the first to take an automobile from one end of Canada to other.

Those two men were Thomas Wilby and Jack Haney.

It all began on Aug. 27, 1912 in Halifax as a vehicle designed by the REO Motor Company, and built at their plant in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. Of course, things got off to a rough start when the car went missing before it was delivered, and it took several days to find it and deliver it to Halifax. At that point, it was backed into the water of the Atlantic Ocean. From this moment on, and for the next 52 days, the vehicle and the two men would be driving across Canada.

Wilby, a travel writer from Britain, had been the one to come up with the idea for the trip. Getting the REO Motor Car Company to sponsor his trip, he was given not only a car, but also a driver. That driver, who also served as the mechanic, was Jack Haney.

The two men could not be more different, and neither would become fast friends to each other on the long journey.

Haney was the perfect mechanic for this trip. He prepared for everything, fitting the car with two trunks for reserve gas tanks, tins of oil, spare inner tubes, a pump, chains for the wheels, hooks for getting out of mud and a block and tackle.

The car itself had five seats and a 30-horsepower engine that started with a crank. An overhead roof could be folded up, and it had three speeds along with a 60-litre gas tank. Its top speed was a blistering 60 kilometres per hour.

Wilby, the aristocrat from England, insisted on sitting in the back seat and barked directions at Hanley as they drove.

Wilby would write A Motor Tour Through Canada, which celebrated the car and Canada and predicted that one day cars would be everywhere. He also pushed for a cross-country roadway to link the provinces in the same way that the railroad had once done.

Haney, for his part, also wrote a diary and his was much bleaker than Wilby’s. Calling Wilby, ‘The Captain’, there was no love lost for him.

Wilby never even mentioned Haney in his book, and even had him airbrushed out of pictures.

Haney would take his own revenge, writing that Wilby never helped change a tire in the dozens of times it was required, and never once helped push the car out of the mud. To put this in perspective, the car had to be pushed out of the mud hundreds of times. In addition, Wilby only referred to his companion as ‘the chauffeur’, and only said that four times in the 290 pages of the book.

Haney said that Wilby was a British snob and when first introduced to him, Wilby insisted on being called ‘sir’

Through their journey across the country, they would drive through swamps in Northern Ontario, drive on rail ties through British Columbia, and nearly come to ditching each other many times. In New Brunswick, they drove for eight kilometres on felled logs that served as the road and even ran out of gas. Haney was forced to blow into the gas tank to push the last few remaining bits of fuel into the engine so they could continue on.

Wilby would say, “After some time, by dint of blowing into the tank to gain pressure, the car was started again…that the unfortunate chauffeur did not burst his cheeks or succumb to asphyxia, as to fell to his lot to blow into the petrol tank every few minutes of the remaining journey.”

The journey through eastern Canada went relatively well thanks to the abundance of trails and dirt roads that could be used by the two men. The only paved road was found between Toronto and Hamilton. The rest was dirt, or no road at all.

By Ottawa, with still a long way to go, Hanley wrote in his journal that he was, “heartily sick of my companion and will be mightily glad when the trip is over.”

Wilby insisted on taking the trip along the all-red route, so named because Canada was coloured red on maps at the time and refused to venture into the United States at any point.

Things became a bit more difficult once they reached Sault. St. Marie and from that point until Winnipeg, the vehicle had to be loaded onto a train and transported to Winnipeg. There were simply no roads to drive on at that point.

The two men made it to Regina on Sept. 27, 1912. In Regina, the two men stopped to meet with the heads of the Saskatchewan government, and they talked of the need for a highway linking all the provinces, a common thread on their journey. The members of the Moose Jaw Auto Club decided to set out and meet the two men at Pense. Unfortunately, they took a different road and completely missed the club.

Upon arriving in Moose Jaw on Sept. 28, the journey was mentioned in the local newspaper:

“In a day when great stretches of the country possessed no roads or at best ere trails which often meandered into swamps and ended on mountain ledges, the venture was considered by some to be sheer madness. Therefore, it was a surprise to many when the Reo and its occupants arrived in Regina quite intact.”

Speaking the the members of the auto club in Moose Jaw, Wilby praised the prairies:

“The world was silent, majestic in its hush and sense of arrested motion. It was grand and large, unspoilt and primordial. It was the real west at last.”

Also speaking to the club, he said that the prairie roads were not bad, but several herds of horses had run in front of the car, hurling huge clods of dirt at them. He also criticized the fact that there were no road markers to identify the road a person was on, not even between Moose Jaw and Regina.

Later that day, the two men left for Swift Current and would be in Medicine Hat that evening.

They would reach the Crowsnest Pass on Oct. 3. They would continue on to Cranbrook and Yahk where they found no road at all. They decided to drive on the railroad track instead, agreeing that if a train was coming, they would both jump off to safety.

Finally, over 50 days after leaving Halifax, the two men arrived in Alberni, British Columbia on Oct. 14. Driving up to the water, they dipped the front wheels in and celebrated the completion of their journey.

In writing a piece for newspapers across Canada in November of that year, Wilby would state,

“The start having been made from Halifax about 4 p.m. in dull, cold weather and the arrival in Vancouver by coincidence, was made at the same hour, under the same weather conditions.”

He would continue to write about the journey, never once mentioning Jack Haney in the article.

“Road conditions were bad, owing to the immense rainfall in every part of the country, especially Manitoba.”

Over the course of the trip, which 3,900 miles, of which 700 miles were covered under power other than the car due to the lack of roads, the two men would average 120 miles per day, but in the Prairies this was reduced to 60 miles at times.

The highest total for distance travelled was between Maple Creek, Saskatchewan and Lethbridge, Alberta, when the two men drove 185 miles. The lowest distance travelled was only 14 miles

Following the journey, Wilby would publish his book and keep writing travel diaries.

Haney would return to St. Catherine’s Ontario and marry Annie Glendinning Swan. He would join Wells Garage before starting his own garage, Haney’s Garage, at 50 Niagara Street. He would be a charter member of the Canadian Flying Club when it was formed in 1928. He passed away in 1935.

The Trans-Canada would finally be built, half a century later, when construction began in 1962 and was completed in 1971.

While the Hanley and Wilby hated each other, they still accomplished something no one had ever done before, a drive across Canada.

In our age of highways and high-tech cars, their accomplishment was no small feat.

Information for this piece comes from The Globe and Mail, Wikipedia,

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