The Building Of The Trans-Canada Highway

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The highway is so long that it would run from shores of the Nile Delta in Egypt all the way down to the bottom of Cape Town, South Africa, with a few hundred kilometres to spare. Its distance would cover from the very southern tip of South Africa all the way to Honduras. I could go on, but needless to say, it is very long.

The desire for a highway that went across the country actually went back to the very dawn of the automotive area. In 1912, when the first trans-Canada car trip occurred, which I did an episode on a few months ago, go check it out, it became clear that there was a possibility to have a highway across the country. In 1942, it finally became possible to drive across Canada on Canadian roads, even though most of the roads were gravel. The final stretch of gravel road built was a 246-kilometre stretch in northern Ontario. The first people to make this drive were R.A. Macfarlane and Kenneth MacGillivray in 1946.

Three years later on Dec. 10, the Trans-Canada Highway Act was passed and the highway for Canada was ready to be born. Of course, getting to that point was not easy and took some strong negotiations between the federal government and the provinces. In 1950, construction would commence on the highway and it would be no quick process. In fact, while the transcontinental railway only took a few years to build, the Trans Canada Highway would take much longer.

An infusion of $150 million went into this project initially, amounting to $1.6 billion today. That would not be the final cost for the project. The federal government would pay to a maximum of 50 per cent of the shared costs for the construction of the road, except in the national park system. Those areas were under federal jurisdiction and the federal government paid 100 per cent of the costs. Each section of the highway had its own agreement with the provinces. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island signed their agreement on April 25, 1950. New Brunswick signed on May 27, 1950, Newfoundland on June 27, 1950 and Nova Scotia on May 15, 1952. Quebec would sign its agreement on Oct. 27, 1960, the last province to do so.

The planning for the project required that the pavement widths be 6.7 metres and 7.3 metre with ample shoulders, bridge clearances, sight distances and more. Each province would supervise its own construction and the target date was to finish it by December 1956, but that would not be reached and the project would take longer and cost more by the time it was finished.

Construction was put under the oversight of the Department of Resources and Development, but in September 1953, the Department of Public Works picked up the project.

The first province to complete its section was, not surprisingly, Saskatchewan, which it did in 1957. While all the provinces had roads going across their borders, most, especially in the west, were gravel and had to be upgraded properly to make them safe and usable as a highway. In some areas, the roads were nothing more that rutted dirt tracks, or in the case of British Columbia, rocky lanes running alongside mountains.

I am going to go through each province’s work to finish the highway, since each province was responsible for its own stretch.


In Newfoundland, which had only joined Canada in 1949, the highway would cost $92 million in federal funding and $20 million in provincial funding. The highway would cover 903 kilometres and Newfoundland would actually have the second-longest distance to cover in the construction after Ontario and the second-most difficult terrain after British Columbia.

With only 500,000 people, it had the second smallest number of people after Prince Edward Island to absorb the costs. In addition, its per capita income was the lowest in Canada. Paving of the highway would finish on Nov. 27, 1965 at Pearson’s Peak. The official opening of the highway would happen in 1966 and was attended by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, here was his speech to the crowd.

Nova Scotia

Most of the roads here were improved on and brought to the standard set out for the Trans Canada Highway, although a huge amount of work was put into linking Cape Breton Island to the mainland of Nova Scotia.

New Brunswick

When the route of the Trans Canada was planned through New Brunswick in 1950, it did not follow Route 2 via Saint John between Fredericton and Sussex, but took the more direct Route 9. Throughout the construction, a number of bypasses and realignments were done to improve Route 2 with federal Trans-Canada Highway funds.

Prince Edward Island

The smallest province did not have much it needed to do with the Trans Canada Highway, apart from upgrading some roads and improving ferry service to the island. Ironically, the cost to get the highway up to standards was actually quite expensive at times since the highway’s base rock had to be shipped into the province across the Northumberland Straight.


In 1950 when the Act was passed, provincial funding agreements were negotiated and Quebec was able to receive 21 per cent allocation of the road construction budget. A very difficult portion was the tunnel that would go under the St. Lawrence River at the Boucherville Islands near Montreal. This project cost $85 million for one kilometre of highway, equivalent to $560 million today.

The tunnel section at Montreal would not be finished until 1967 and is one of the largest pre-stressed concrete structures in the world to this day. Each of the seven pre-stressed sections of the tunnel were formed in dry dock. When finished, they were 32,000 tonnes, measuring 110 metres long, 37 metres wide and eight metres high. A trench had been pre-excavated in the river bed and each section was floated by barge where crews would build the concrete roadway deck and steel reinforcement inside each section, careful not to tip the barge. Once this was done, the barge would go to the proper location and sink the section of the tunnel until it touched the bottom, 24 metres below the water.

Today, this tunnel section carries 130,000 vehicles per day.


Ontario had one of the most developed road systems in Canada by the 1950s, at least in southern Ontairo. In 1939 the country had the first inter-city divided highway in Canada running from St. Catherines to Toronto, as well as the first cloverleaf interchange. Various work did have to be done in the province to built the proper highway and the cost was quite high in some areas, especially the swampy areas of northern Ontario. The 256-kilometre section between Wawa and Sault Ste Marie was very challenging with the 60 per cent of that distance going through new ground that was usually muskeg. Some sections were 15 metres deep and 25 new bridges had to built. Thousands of tons of blast rock had to be brought in to form a solid road base, which added to the overall cost.  This section of the highway would open in September of 1960.

As you drive the Trans-Canada now, you will come across plenty of roadside attractions. From Huskie the Muskie in Kenora, to Mac the Moose in Moose Jaw, but one of the first to jump on this idea was Wawa.

Overall, many areas of the province were getting a proper road for the first time in its history.


Between 1958 and 1968, most of the provincial highways that formed the route through the province would be designated as Highway 1. The highway was completed in 1962 in the province, only two years after the highway officially opened in 1960.


The building of the highway through Saskatchewan was relatively easy, as we see with it finishing before any other province. This is because the highway was built on a nearly straight route over flat land. That is not to say that it was always easy though. Gumbo clay in some areas would turn to slippery mud when soaked and a huge amount of gravel underlayment had to be brought in to form a stable road base.


Due to the increase in oil production in the province, many roads were being improved on by the time the Trans-Canada was being put through. In the 1950s though, all road construction had to include draining culverts, ditches, guard rails and more to get it up to code with what the federal government wanted. Once the road reached the mountains and Banff, extra work had to be put in to ensure everything was safe.

British Columbia

Due to the mountain terrain of the province, there were often very difficult sections to build and upgrade. As a result, completion in the province took the longest of the provinces, and is a reason why the grand opening of the road was done in British Columbia, rather than closer to Ontario.

One of the most difficult parts of the entire project was the route between Golden and Revelstoke, a distance of only 148 kilometres. The snowfall reached 15.2 metres per year here and this presented a great deal of danger to workers and drivers. As a result, snowsheds had to be built along with earth mounds to protect people on the finished highway. The Avalanche Research Group was created by the government in 1953 to locate avalanche zones and recommend defense mechanisms. The work had to mostly be done on skis and was dangerous because of the avalanches. On several occasions, the scientists had to be rescued from avalanches, thankfully with no serious injuries or deaths. Thanks to their work, it was determined that 825 metres of snow sheds should be installed along the dangerous portions of the route.

In regards to the Kicking Horse Pass near Golden, a highway was built there earlier with two lanes carved between rock faces and steep drop-offs that had hairpin turns and two narrow crossings over the river. This 26-kilometre section of the highway had to be upgraded to keep drivers safe and resulted in three phases to the project. The three phases would replace the two river crossings, put in improvements, implement wildlife fencing and crossings, expansion to four lanes and installing electronic message signs. Another tough section was the 15-kilometres between Field and Golden, which saw two million tonnes of rock removed, along with two million tonnes of soil.

When it was done though, Vancouver was now linked with the rest of Canada by a proper road.

On July 30, 1962, the highway officially opened at Rogers Pass. It stretched 7,821 kilometres from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia, although 3,000 kilometres of the highway were not paved. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was on hand for the big event but there was no singing of O’ Canada because the Princess Patricia’s Canadians Light Infantry band’s instruments had taken a wrong turn out of Calgary. Thankfully, it arrived in time for the band to play God Save The Queen. As part of the opening, Diefenbaker patted down a small patch of pavement to finish the highway in front of 3,000 people.

The opening was not so much about the work being done, but that this difficult gap of the pass was finished. The ceremony was also relatively near to Craigelachie, where the last spike was driven in on the Trans-Continental Railway in 1885 by Sir Donald Smith.

The opening was also missing two provinces. No one from New Brunswick was able to attend, and Newfoundland boycotted the ceremony because they were angry that the federal government wasn’t paying more towards construction since most of the roads were still gravel. The premier of British Columbia, W.A.C. Bennett, who was also the third cousin of R.B. Bennett, the former prime minister, did not attend the ceremony in his own province. He also wanted the federal government to provide more money for the construction and he had already officially opened the road in the province a month early on a nearby stop. At that ceremony, he called it B.C. Highway 1 and never mentioned Canada in his speech.

The highway between Revelstoke and Golden would see its traffic increase 10-fold immediately after the highway opened as the small section of highway cut 160 kilometres and seven hours of travel time off of taking the old Big Bend loop through the area.

While the highway opened in 1962, it was completely finished in 1971, 21 years after it started. In 1956, the goal was to have 10 provinces connected by paved road by 1967, the year of Canada’s Centennial. In 1955, most of the roads designated as the Trans-Canada were still gravel and when the highway officially opened, 50 percent of it was still gravel. By 1967, most of the highway would be paved.

Upon its completion, the highway was the most lengthy uninterrupted highway in the entire world. At this point, it had cost $1.4 billion to finish, or $9.2 billion today.

I will close out this episode with some quick facts about the Trans-Canada.

The highest point on the Trans Canada is the 1,627 metre mile-long section at the Kicking Horse Pass.

As with the building of the Trans Canada, provinces are responsible for maintaining the road except in National Parks.

For a section to qualify as the Trans-Canada, it has to be paved, and at least 6.7 metres wide and have shoulders 3.3 metres wide on each side.

In the Banff National Park section, there are 38 wildlife underpasses and six wildlife overpasses.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Britannica,, Macleans,,, Construct Connect, Wikipedia,, the Government of BC, TAC-ATC-ca, CBC, the National Film Board

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