Ontario’s one hundred years of highways

By MPP Toby Barrett

Our area’s section of Provincial Highway 3 has quite a history – originally following different settler trails. For much of its length, it follows the Talbot Trail – originally a corduroy road built by Col. Thomas Talbot to join Niagara with Amherstburg in the 1820s.

Corduroy road refers to the practice of installing logs perpendicular to the direction of travel to provide traction. By the 1850s, the bone-jarring corduroy was replaced by cut planks – hence the original name Plank Road for our section of Highway 6.

By 1920, the full connection was made from Windsor to Niagara Falls. Five years later it was officially designated as Highway 3 and then rerouted, later in the decade, after the Peace Bridge was built between Fort Erie and Buffalo.

Government involvement in road building ramped up with the appointment of a Provincial Instructor in Road Making in 1896 within the Department of Agriculture. The position changed to Commissioner of Highways in 1900, and was transferred to the Department of Public Works in 1905.

And then, one hundred years ago, the Province of Ontario established the Department of Public Highways. In 1916, the province had over 30,000 miles of gravel road. There were 54,500 vehicles and a speed limit of 15 miles per hour. The department was established with a vision of connecting the province smooth, paved highways.

The 1920s roared in with the number of vehicles increasing nearly five-fold. The government met this challenge with many changes within the transportation sector. Driver’s licenses, as well as beginner’s permits, were introduced for the first time for all vehicle operators. Other milestones were: the first snow removal, production of a road map, the first traffic lights, the regulation of commercial vehicles and a three-cent a gallon gas tax.

In spite of the Great Depression, the province’s highway network expanded. Many roads, including the Long Point Causeway, were built as unemployment relief projects. Thanks to our Women’s Institutes and a department engineer by the name of J.D. Millar, the concept of painting white lines on the highway to delineate lanes was born.

The 1930s also saw a name change to Department of Highways, and construction of the Nipigon River Bridge – the only link between western and eastern Canada. As with Cayuga and Caledonia, the Nipigon Bridge made news again this year.

The 1930s saw the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Way. – the first inter-city divided highway in  Canada. The highway was officially opened in 1939 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Despite the Second World War, much was accomplished on the province’s highway network. This included preliminary work on Highway 400, building the first stretch of what would become the 401. Discussions also commenced with the federal government on funding for the Trans-Canada Highway – also known as Highway 1 in much of the country.

Plans to complete the 401 were announced in the 1950s. The Burlington Bay Skyway was opened in 1958, becoming the longest bridge built in Canada at the time. Haldimand-Norfolk MPP James N. Allen was the minister overseeing the work on the 401, and the Skyway which was named in his honour.

In 1957, the Department of Transportation was formed to oversee driver, vehicle and carrier licensing. In 1971 it eventually became the Ministry of Transportation of today.