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The Early Days Of Transportation In Canada
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The Early Days Of Transportation In Canada
Source: The Railroads of Canada
Acquired: July 8, 1991
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  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.95977 Longitude: -78.16515
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Cobourg Public Library
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The material progress of Canada has depended on nothing so much as the means of communication, the facilities for conveying men and goods.

On the discovery of Canada, when the whole country was covered with a primeval forest, the rivers and lakes formed. the natural highways, the only means by which it was possible to travel. The birch bark canoe, which the Indians had from time immemorial used, had to be adopted by the first Europeans who made their way into the interior. When a fall or cataract was reached, the tiny vessel had to be hoisted on the shoulders of the travellers and carried above or below the obstruction, together with whatever goods the party carried. Tents were generally out of the question; and the Jesuit missionaries frequently speak jocosely of having put up for the night at the sign of the moon; the stars their canopy, and chief or only covering. Between Three Rivers and the country of the Hurons, on the east side of the Georgian Bay, which they named the Fresh Water Sea, and which the Indians called Attigouantan no less than forty potages had to be made-that is, the canoe had to be taken out of the water and carried so many times-and the downward voyage, when sailing with the stream nearly all the way, consumed no less than thirty-five days, in which many perils to life and limb were encountered; a longer time than is now required to cross the continent five times from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The chief business of the country long centred in the fur trade, of which the beaver furnished the biggest and most valuable supply. The boats used by the traders were necessarily limited in weight to what the voyageurs could carry on their shoulders over the portages. We are not going to waste time on a review of the fur trade or its progress, but it is worth while to note, as illustrating the inevitable slowness of the progress which it was possible to make in the absence of improved method of conveyance, that; though Canada was discovered in 1514, the only means of getting into Lake Superior, possessed by the North-West Company, the most powerful organization that then existed in the country (the year 1800), was the bark canoe. It was large enough to carry eight or ten men, and a corresponding quantity of goods. It thus appears that for nearly three centuries the bark canoe, in one form or another, was the only reliance of Canadians, when extra long voyages had to be undertaken. On shorter voyages, other and superior craft were used.

At the close of the last century, it was the custom of Governor Simcoe to travel from Kingston to Detroit, in a large bark canoe, rowed by twelve chasseurs of his own regiment j and followed by another boat, in which the tents and provisions were carried. The rule was to halt at noon for dinner, and in the evening to pitch the tents. When it was necessary to pass from one lake to the other - Ontario to Erie - by the portage at Queenston, this was then the only kind of vessel that could be used. On Lake Ontario he had the choice between the large bark canoe and a gun boat of eighty tons - that being the capacity- of the Onondago-of which there were four. But only two of them, provided with sails and oars, were fit to carry either passengers or guns; and they were often pressed into the service of merchants, by whom either an equivalent in money was paid, or a return in like service in their vessels to the government was made.

The cost of carriage; by every mode of conveyance then in use in the country was enormous. A bushel of Indian corn cost, by the time it reached Grand Portage, about thirty miles above Fort William, twenty shillings sterling; and Sir Alexander Mackenzie tells us it was the cheapest article of provisions the North-West Company could supply its men with, in the first year of this century. For the same sum ten bushels of corn can now be purchased in England, after having been carried a thousand miles in the interior of America and across the Atlantic. But the North-West Company obtained the carriage of its stores very cheap, compared with what others paid. The cost of carrying goods between Montreal and Kingston, before the Rideau or St. Lawrence canals were built, seems to this generation incredible, and is worthy of belief only, because it is stated on unimpeachable authority. Sir J. Murray stated, in the House of Commons, September 6; 1828, that, on a former occasion, the carriage of a twenty-four pound cannon cost between £150 and £200 sterling; that of a seventy-six cwt. anchor £676 j and that when the Imperial Government sent out two vessels in frames, one of them, no brig, cost the country in carriage, the short distance between these two cities, the enormous sum of thirty thousand pounds sterling; nearly one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The same service could now be performed for a mere trifle. In the early days of the Talbot settlement - about 1817 - so called from a large district of country in Western Canada having been granted to Col. Talbot to place settlers upon, we have the authority of Mr. Edward Ermatinger, the biographer of that eccentric pioneer, for the statement that eighteen bushels of wheat were required to pay for a barrel of salt and that one bushel of wheat would no more than buy a yard of cotton. From the difficulty of getting seed grain over the wretched roads of this new country, the struggling pioneer sometimes had to pay as high as two dollars a bushel for wheat, which sold in other parts of the province, where communications were better, for about three shillings and three pence a bushel, and other things necessary to his comfort and subsistence were proportionately dear.

The enormous rates of Atlantic freights, in those early days, show the immense improvements that have since taken place in ocean navigation. Mr. David Anderson, who, in 1814, published a book to prove the importance of the British American Colonies to England, estimated the freight of a quantity of wheat sufficient to make a barrel of flour, from Canada to England, at a pound sterling, nearly five dollars. He was obliged to make an estimate, when dealing with a barrel of flour, because "breadstuffs" were then shipped to England only in their unground state; and if his figures be reliable, Atlantic freights on this form of "the staff of life," were seven times as high as at present. We suspect, however, that his estimate was too high.

The average cost of freight on all the grain taken to England is added to the price of the grain; and if it costs five or six times as much to take grain to that market from one country as it can be taken for from another, the producer, in the former country is at a great disadvantage in the competition he is obliged to meet. Discriminating duties could not be expected to make up the difference. Lying under these enormous difficulties in respect to the transmission of produce from the place of production to the ultimate market, it was inevitable that the exports of Canada in grain should be low. In the quarter of a century ending with 1824, when the practice of grinding wheat for exportation had begun, Canada had exported only 563,212 bbls. of flour, and 4,833,190 bushels of wheat. Her population was small; but the growth of population under this condition of things must necessarily be the reverse of rapid.

Between Quebec and Montreal, and on Lake Ontario an improved kind of craft was used long before the same thing was possible between Montreal and Kingston. In 1795, three small merchant vessels, owned at Kingston, used to make eleven voyages a year to the portage at Queenston; they formed the bridge between Kingston and Queenston; and long after, so little was foreseen of the future tracks of commerce, it was thought that the, latter place would always continue to play an important part in the trade of the country. These vessels were, probably, from fifty to two hundred tons burthen, as Weld tells us, there were merchant vessels of that class on the lake at that date. Canoes and batteaux were also much used; all the ecasters[?] on the American side being of the latter class. Nearly all the British commerce of the lake was between Kingston and Queenston. The vessels seldom called at any other point. The number of vessels must have been small; for, if we may trust a statement published in the newspapers of the time, there were, in 1812, seventeen years after, on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario, only three vessels of over forty tons each. In 1826, in spite of the war that had intervened; the number of vessels of that size had increased to between thirty and forty, and some reached nearly, or quite, one hundred tons. At the former date, 1795, the fare between Kingston and Niagara was ten dollars, first class, and half that sum second class. The freight on goods between Kingston and Queenston was about nine dollars a ton (thirty six shillings sterling) nearly as much as would have been paid for carrying them across the Atlantic, before the war then raging in Europe broke out. But ships were costly to construct, and wore out rapidly; sailors had to be brought up from the ocean, and retained on pay during the five or six winter months when the harbors were frozen up. Ship carpenters, brought from the States, worked in summer and returned home in winter. Added to this rate of freight was the previous carriage, sometimes of over two thousand miles, inland, before they were put on board at Queenston portage. Over this portage, sixty wagons would Sometimes pass in a day. The upper landing place was on Chippawa Creek. Merchandize took this route westward by Detroit to Michilmackinac, and beyond. This portage trade gave the same importance to Queenston that Lachine received from a similar kind of traffic.

The first steamboat that ran between Quebec and Montreal appears to have been built in 1811, by Mr. John Molson, well known as the father of steamboat enterprise on the St. Lawrence. We find by the journals of Lower Canada that a bill was brought in, in that year, to grant him the exclusive right of navigating with one or more steamboats that part of the river; but though it passed through committee, it did not become law. Next year it was again introduced on petition. The petition sets forth that Mr. Molson had already built a steamboat, at great expense, which would afford the, means, at a small cost to the public, of a speedy and convenient passage between the two cities; the only means of making it then in use being “fatiguing from the nature of the vehicle, and inconvenient both for lodging and nourishment." The petition did not mention the number of years during which this exclusive privilege was desired. The Legislative Council passed the bill, and inserted the term of fourteen years; but when it came before the Assembly, in Committee, the House was counted out for want of a quorum, only thirteen members being present, among them L. J. Papineau, who was favourable to the measure. Nevertheless, steamboat communication was established on that part of the St. Lawrence, through the enterprise of Mr. Molson. It lessened the cost, shortened the time, and banished many of the discomforts of travelling between the two chief cities of Lower Canada.

Twelve years later, there were no less than seven steamboats plying between Quebec and Montreal. Five of them appeared in Edward Allen Talbot's eyes nearly as long each as a forty gun frigate. The double row of sleeping berths, on each side of the cabin, were thought to be surpassing luxuries, where state-rooms were unknown ; though they would now fail to command any but second class passengers. And the charge, £3 sterling, over fourteen dollars and a half from Quebec to Montreal, and ten shillings less the other way, would now take a passenger all the way from Hamilton to the Saguenay by steamboat, and from Sarnia to Portland by rail. But the rates of passage were soon reduced, by the natural operation of competition, to a moderato figure. By the year 1829, deck passage on these steamers could be had for a dollar and a half; and a passage could be had on such conveyance as then existed, from Montreal to Kingston, for five dollars more.

Upper Canada was only a. little later in availing itself of the facilities of steamboat navigation. The Frontenac, the first Lake Ontario steamer, was not built till 1816. She cost £15,000, which is nearly three times as much as any other boat on that Lake cost for the next decade, as the following figures, which represent the commercial steam marine of Lake Ontario in 1826, show:

Names of Steamers.Cost.
Queenston (estimated)5,000

The Frontenac, Howison tells us, was the largest steamboat In Canada; her deck being seventy-two feet long and thirty-two feet wide; seven hundred and forty tons burthen, and drawing eight feet of water. The time has long since passed when any one would think of using, on these waters, so small a steamer for passenger traffic. But the size of Canadian steamers soon underwent an increase. In 1829, the Lady Sherlock, which runs between Quebec and Montreal, was one hundred and forty-five feet long, and the Chambly was only three feet shorter. Before the Lachine Canal was built small steamers managed to stem the Lachine rapid, which they overcame by going obliquely against the current and taking advantage of the side eddies.

It is curious to note that, at a distance of about five years, Upper Canada followed Lower in the inauguration of steamboat enterprise; and that she counted seven steamboats on Lake Ontario two years after Lower Canada had placed that number between Quebec and Montreal. The fare charged by the first Upper Canada steamboat was twelve dollars from Prescott to Toronto, and half as much again to Hamilton.

But while these two sections were provided with steamboat accommodation, the intermediate distance between Kingston and Montreal was still, on account of the interruptions occasioned by the rapids, obliged to content itself with more primitive modes of communication.

The flat bottomed Batteaux, made of pine boards, and narrowed at bow and stern, forty feet by six, with a crow of four men and a pilot, provided with, oars, sails and iron shod poles for pushing, continued to carry, in cargoes of five tons, all the merchandise that passed to Upper Canada. Sometimes these boats were provided with a makeshift upper cabin, which consisted of an awning of oilcloth supported on hoops like the roof of an American, Quaker or Gipsy wagon: provided with half a dozen chairs and a table, this cabin was deemed the height of primitive luxury. The Batteaux went in brigades, which generally consisted of five boats. Against the swiftest currents and rapids, the men poled their way up; and when the resisting element was too much for their strength, they fastened a rope to the bow, and plunging into the water, dragged her by main strength up the boiling cataract. From Lachine to Kingston, the average voyage was ten or twelve days; though it was occasionally made in seven; an average as long as a voyage across the Atlantic now. The nature of the route over which they travelled had dictated the construction of these boats; the main object being that they should draw as little water as possible. A Batteaux of two tons, if heavily laden, had to be lightened to pass over the Long Sault, when the water was low.

The Durham boat, also then doing duty on this route, was a flat bottomed barge; but it differed from the bateaux in having a slip keel and nearly twice its capacity.

This primitive mode of travelling had its poetic side. Amid all the hardships of their vocation, the French Canadian boatmen were ever light of spirit, and they enlivened the passengers by caroling their boat songs; one of which inspired Moore to write his immortal ballad, better known among the generality of English readers than those of the French that preceded it.

The loss of time, from the slowness of the old modes of travel, was a very serious matter. Edward Allen Talbot, who published a book on Canada, in 1824, has some facts cited from his own experience on this point, We should be sorry to guarantee the general accuracy of this prejudiced and splenetic work; but the author may be trusted when he tells us that himself, his father, and the rest of the family were thirteen days in a Durham boat, between Lachine and Prescott. To the loss of time by this mode of travelling was added the discomfort arising from a part of the passengers having to sleep at night, when the boat came to a stand, in the open air, on shore; the wretched little cabin - not of the awning kind, it is presumed - not being sufficient to accommodate a single family.

The dangers of this mode of travelling, like that by canoe which it had superceded, were very great; those of the Long Sault being especially dreaded. Mr. Boulton, in his topographical description of Upper Canada, published in London, in 1824, says: "Boats may pass near shore, but where misfortune has driven either a boat or a raft into the strong part of the current, it hath seldom happened that a life has been saved. A melancholy instance of the danger of this just occurred in the late French war, when several boats and their crews were entirely lost.” But familiarity with the currents had reduced the danger to a minimum; and the surplus grain of Upper Canada was now taken down on rafts or in boats, with a great degree of safety. Attempts had been made to take lumber down from the most distant points on Lake Ontario; but Mr. Boulton conceived "the risk to be far above the probable advantage;” a risk which, in these later days, we have learnt to count very little.

As between the Bateaux and the Durham boat, the balance of safety lay on the side of the former. An example from the experience of Isaac Weld, the traveller, when passing from Montreal to Quebec, in the summer of 1795, will show this in a striking manner. After leaving Montreal, "we had," he says, "reached a wide part of the river, and were sailing under a favourable wind, when suddenly the horizon grew very dark, and a dreadful storm arose, accompanied by loud peals of thunder and a torrent of rain. Before the sail could be taken in, the ropes which held it were snapped in pieces, and the waves began to dash over the sides of the batteaux, though the water had been quite smooth five minutes before. It was impossible now to counteract the force of the wind with oars, and the batteaux was consequently driven on shore, and the bottom of it being quite flat, it was carried smoothly upon the beach without sustaining any injury, and the men leaping out of it drew it on dry land, where we remained out of all danger till the storm was over. A keel boat, however, of the same size, could not have approached nearer to the shore than thirty feet, and there it would have stuck fast in the sand, and probably have been filled with water."

The great leading roads of the Province had received little improvement beyond being graded, and the swamps made passable by laying the round trunks of trees, side by side across the roadway. Their supposed resemblance to the King's corduroy cloth, gained for these crossways the name of corduroy roads. The earth roads were passably good only when covered with the snows of winter, or dried up with the summer sun; and even then a thaw or a rain made them all but impassable. The rains of autumn, and the thaws of spring, converted them into a mass of liquid mud, such as amphibious animals might delight to revel in. Except an occasional legislative grant of a few thousand pounds for the whole Province, which was ill expended, and often not accounted for at all, the great leading roads, as well as all other roads, depended, in Upper Canada, for their improvement on statute labour. In 1831, every male inhabitant not rated on the assessment roll, was liable to two days labour on the roads; a person rated at not more than twenty-five pounds, to three days labour; if over fifty, and less than seventy-five, four days; at one hundred pounds five days; at two hundred pounds, seven days; at three hundred, nine days; at four hundred, eleven days; at five hundred twelve days. This labor was languidly performed, or, when possible, evaded altogether; substitutes were difficult to get, and money to pay them with equally so. In that year, £20,000 was granted by the Legislature for the improvement of roads; and Mr. Ruttan, in a pamphlet published the next year, stated that £9,000 of it remained unaccounted for. In 1835, no less a sum than £50,000 was granted for the improvement of roads; but this sum, even if economically expended, would go a very little way in forming good roads, over distances that embraced many hundreds of miles. In 1836-7, a. Session of recklessly improvident grants of all kinds, £500,000 was authorised to be raised for roads; but it was of no more value than the several other similar authorizations, amounting in the aggregate to several millions of dollars, when the credit of the Province was at zero, and its whole revenue was not one-third as much as that of one of our richest municipalities to-day. At the time of the union, in 1841, the whole revenue of the Province was only £78,000; that of Toronto was, in 1870, $1,362,169.25. Formerly the small grants for this purpose were jobbed and squandered by members of the Legislature, under a system in which no one was responsible, and every member could propose a money grant without the previous authority of the Crown. In 1840, Chief Justice Robinson estimated the whole amount that had been expended on macadamized roads, in Upper Canada, at £200,000 - $800,000. After the union, a large portion of the Imperial guaranteed loan of £1,500,000, was expended on this kind of road; but the money was so distributed that the great leading routes were seldom more than partially improved.

The only road on which it was possible, in 1837, to take a drive, near Toronto, was Yonge Street, which was Macadamized a distance of twelve miles. Mrs. Jamieson describes the Canadian stage coach as being, at that time, like the American, a "heavy lumbering vehicle, well calculated to live in roads where any decent carriage must needs founder." These were the better sort, on the great roads. Another kind were “large oblong wooden boxes, formed of a few planks nailed together, and placed on wheels, in which you enter by the window, there being no door to open or shut, and no springs." On two or three wooden seats, suspended on leather straps, the passengers were perched. The behaviour of the better sort, in a journey from Niagara to Hamilton, is described by this writer as consisting of a "reeling and tumbling along the detestable road, pitching like a scow among the breakers of a lake storm." The road was knee-deep in mud, “the forest on either side dark grim and impenetrable.”

Bad as this was, there were men scarce past the prime of life, who, contrasting it with their recollections and experience, might be excused for thinking it a very acceptable mode of travelling. They could remember the time when it was impossible to thread their way among the stumps of trees and fallen timber that encumbered the road, with a rude cart and a yoke of oxen; when the Duke de la Rochfoucalt Lioncourt, in 1795, described this very road as one of the worst he had seen in America; when it was passable only on horseback, and then, he tells us, "but for our finding now and then some trunks of trees in the swampy places, 'We should not have been able to disengage ourselves from the morass." Thirty years later, Mr. Wm. L. Mackenzie described the rand between Toronto and Kingston, as among the worst that human foot ever trod. And down to the latest day before the railroad era, the travellers in the Canadian stage coach were lucky if, when a hill had to be ascended or a bad spot passed, they had not to alight and trudge ankle deep through the mud.

In Lower Canada the Maitres and Aides de Poste formerly kept conveyances for the carriage of passengers at stated post houses; and the rates of charge were fixed by law. They received ten-pence a league for a horse and cart or sleigh, or for a horse and harness without either, for conveying a weight of six hundred pounds, and four-peace for every additional horse, com-eying a weight of one thousand pounds; and seven-pence half-penny a league for a saddle-horse. The Act establishing these post houses having expired, the ci-devant Maitres and Aides de Poste, petitioned for their re-establishment, with a legalized tariff, in 1812. But a committee to whom the petition was referred, reported adversely; and thenceforth the carrying of passengers on land seems to have been left to the natural law of competition.

The rate which it was possible to travel in stage coaches depended on the elements. In spring, when the roads were water-choked, and rut-galled, the rate might he reduced to two miles an hour, for several miles on the worst sections. The coaches were liable to become embedded in the mud, and the passengers had to dismount and assist in prying them out by means of rails obtained from the fences. Various forms of accidents occurred, and the total percentage was probably not less than fifty per cent, more than on railways at present. The cost of travelling, in fares, to say nothing of time and expenses on the way, where the driver was generally in league with the tavern-keeper, by whom he was used as a decoy, was nearly three times what it is on railways. In the dry weather of summer, and the snows of winter, the worst roads became tolerably good; and stories of incredible speed being mad", in sleighing, are still told. It is alleged that Mr. Weller-the immortal stage-conch owner-once drove Lord Sydenham from Toronto to Montreal, by means of successive relays of horses, in twenty-six hours; and a story is told of a still more surprising feat being performed, in the same way, between Portland and Montreal. It was a race between Boston and Portland, which could carry the English mail most rapidly to Montreal. The Portland party made the distance, which is nearly three hundred miles, in twenty hours. The result of this contest is said to have been one of the causes that led to the adoption of Portland as the terminus of the railway from Montreal, instead of Boston. But these exceptional cases prove nothing in favour of a mode of travelling, which, taken altogether, in the varying seasons, was tedious and uncomfortable, and involved an outlay of time and money that would now be thought unendurable.

We have said enough to prove the proposition with which we set out, that the material progress of Canada depends, and has always depended, more upon the facilities for communication than anything else. This brief retrospect will give the present generation some adequate idea of the advantages it possesses over those that went before j a kind of knowledge which may, if rightly used, be turned to practical account.

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The Early Days Of Transportation In Canada

The Early Days Of Transportation In Canada
Source: The Railroads of Canada
Acquired: July 8, 1991