‘RIB­BON OF AS­PHALT’

TCH proves to be ir­re­sistible for driv­ers, cy­clists, run­ners

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - BY COLIN PERKEL

The “Rib­bon of Steel” that binds Canada from coast to coast has re­ver­ber­ated through our col­lec­tive psy­che since the “Last Spike,” cel­e­brated in song, folk­lore and his­tory books.

But what of the “Rib­bon of As­phalt,” the now vi­tal 8,000-kilo­me­tre Trans-Canada High­way that has in so many ways re­placed its rail­way coun­ter­part in ty­ing one end of the coun­try to the other?

Once called “one of the ma­jor Cana­dian trans­porta­tion ac­com­plish­ments of the last cen­tury,” the high­way has proven an ir­re­sistible chal­lenge to driv­ers, cy­clists and run­ners — Terry Fox among them — who have over the years plied its gravel and pave­ment.

Of­fi­cially ap­proved by Par­lia­ment in 1949, for­mer prime min­is­ter John Diefen­baker would for­mally open the high­way — only about half of which was then paved — on Sept. 3, 1962. The cer­e­mony was held with the snow-capped Rock­ies in the back­ground at Rogers Pass, not far from where Sir Don­ald Smith had driven in the last spike for the CPR transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­way in 1885.

The high­way’s builders had faced mon­u­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing and con­struc­tion chal­lenges along the way. One of the most daunt­ing oc­curred at roughly the half-way point, a rugged 265-kilo­me­tre north-south stretch in On­tario along eastern Lake Su­pe­rior be­tween Wawa and Sault Ste Marie.

For years, the ul­tra-hard rock, mul­ti­ple river gorges and deep muskegs had proven in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cles some feared could never be over­come. It would take some fancy foot­work in what came to be known as “Op­er­a­tion Michipoten” to help fill in “The Gap” and com­plete the fi­nal crit­i­cal part of the rout­ing.

Dur­ing the De­pres­sion, hun­dreds of men had earned 15 cents a day to build about 110 kilo­me­tres of road north of Sault Ste. Marie, tough work that con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors later took on dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. But con­struc­tion had hit a granite wall, much to the cha­grin of the res­i­dents of Wawa. Get­ting out of the town meant get­ting on a steam­boat or train.

“Af­ter the Sec­ond World War, Canada was boom­ing. Ev­ery­where was boom­ing. And Wawa felt like it was stuck in a re­mote lit­tle cor­ner of north­ern On­tario,” his­to­rian Jo­hanna Rowe said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “For years, politi­cians promised that we’ll build the high­way. It just seemed to take for­ever.”

As the story goes, frus­trated Wawa res­i­dents fi­nally had enough of empty politi­cian prom­ises to com­plete the stretch of the Trans-Canada that tra­verses the Agawa River Val­ley be­tween their town and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. In 1951, Al Tur­cott, a lo­cal busi­ness­man and en­tre­pre­neur, de­vised a plan to fo­cus at­ten­tion on the need to close the 20-year-old “Gap.”

Tur­cott re­cruited four men to walk the 72 kilo­me­tres or so from the town to Mon­treal River, then the end point of the high­way, with a plan to hype al­most ev­ery step of their jour­ney. Sens­ing some fun to be had, a teenage Ed Ny­man quit his job at the mine to join the group that would go down in his­tory as the “Wawa Four.”

“Soon as I heard about it, I knew I wanted to do it,” Ny­man, 86, said in an in­ter­view in his Wawa liv­in­groom. “I was young. I didn’t care about work or any­thing like that.”

‘We were told to walk slow’ Tur­cott, who had po­lit­i­cal and me­dia con­nec­tions, wanted to milk the hike for all it was worth, and his instructions to the men were clear:

“We were told to walk slow, so Mr. Tur­cott could get it in the news­pa­pers, get a bunch of baloney about it,” Ny­man said with a chuckle. “There was no road. Just bush. Noth­ing. Ab­so­lutely noth­ing.”

Ny­man, the youngest of the group; Derek Baker, a news­pa­per reporter who had just fin­ished a four-year stint with the Bri­tish Navy; Paul Vil­leneuve, a vet­eran prospec­tor and trap­per; and Ge­orge Kim­ball, whose fore­bears had helped build the North, were all ex­pe­ri­enced in the bush. They car­ried sleep­ing bags and other sup­plies — in­clud­ing a bulky ra­dio that some­times worked — and set out on their now leg­endary trek.

The men fol­lowed an old sur­vey line as they am­bled on. At times, a float plane would drop sup­plies on nearby lakes. They pressed through the bush, fished or snoozed. They pre­tended to get lost. They waded across Old Woman River. What might other­wise have been a two- or three-day hike had stretched to 17 days by the time the in­trepid four reached the wooden bridge at Mon­treal River to be greeted as some­thing of he­roes by politi­cians and re­porters.

From there, they were driven to a gala din­ner in Sault Ste. Marie, where the politi­cos in at­ten­dance re­peated prom­ises to get the road built. Ny­man was flown back home.

“For me, it didn’t amount to much,” he said non­cha­lantly while thumb­ing through old black-and-white pho­to­graphs, as if still per­plexed by it all.

Prom­ises and pub­lic­ity notwithstanding, it would take sev­eral more years — un­til 1959 — for the fi­nal 80 kilo­me­tres of “The Gap” to be blasted out. The road was still so rough that it would take about eight hours to drive the 230 kilo­me­tres be­tween Wawa and Sault Ste. Marie, in­clud­ing cross­ing a home­made log bridge over Old Woman River.

Even then, Rowe said, im­pa­tient Wawa lo­cals who wanted to jump in their cars and drive to the Soo found them­selves at log­ger­heads with con­struc­tion work­ers and au­thor­i­ties. At one point, the prov­ince put up bar­ri­cades — manned by pro­vin­cial po­lice — just out­side the town and barred any­one from driv­ing be­yond. Towns­peo­ple would tear down the fences, Rowe said. Au­thor­i­ties then handed out passes al­low­ing for a once-ayear drives. As the story goes, famed artist A.Y. Jack­son had to be smug­gled in be­cause he didn’t have one.

Ul­ti­mately, “The Gap” was closed. Some of the most un­for­giv­ing ter­rain had been con­quered and in Septem­ber 1960, travel re­stric­tions were fi­nally lifted. On­tario’s then-premier, Les­lie Frost, joined sev­eral re­gional and na­tional of­fi­cials in pour­ing rain in Wawa for a rib­bon-cut­ting and ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­monies that in­cluded un­veil­ing an­other of Tur­cott’s cre­ations — the now fa­mous Wawa Goose, since re­placed and sched­uled to be re­placed again this sum­mer.

Today, her­itage doors at the mu­seum-cum-tourist in­for­ma­tion cen­tre in Wawa and var­i­ous plaques in the area, some sport­ing pho­to­graphs of the in­domitable Wawa Four, re­mind pass­ing mo­torists of “Op­er­a­tion Michipi­coten” and its role in ty­ing up the Rib­bon of As­phalt.

New­found­land was the last prov­ince to com­plete its part of high­way, in 1967, but it would take sev­eral more years be­fore the orig­i­nal Trans-Canada to be fin­ished and be­come one of the long­est roads in the world. It stretched 7,821 kilo­me­tres across the coun­try, join­ing St. John’s, N.L., in the east to Vic­to­ria in the west. With the help of a cou­ple of car fer­ries on ei­ther coast, the road passes through all 10 prov­inces and links most ma­jor cities, Toronto be­ing one no­table ex­cep­tion.

“The open­ing of the Trans-Canada High­way pro­vided a shorter first-class route draw­ing to­gether widely sep­a­rated re­gions of On­tario,” a his­toric marker at Chippewa Falls, roughly the mid-point of the high­way, proudly pro­claims.

As has been the case from the start, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment sets stan­dards and is re­spon­si­ble for the road where it runs through na­tional parks. Other­wise, re­spon­si­bil­ity for the high­way falls to the prov­inces.

Nowa­days, the Rib­bon of As­phalt ac­tu­ally com­prises more than one road. For ex­am­ple, two routes run from Nova Sco­tia to New Brunswick, one via Con­fed­er­a­tion Bridge to Prince Ed­ward Is­land. Two roads run west of Mon­treal, while oth­ers run through var­i­ous parts of On­tario. The main Trans-Canada High­way then passes through Win­nipeg, Regina, Calgary and Banff, Alta., be­fore wind­ing through the Rock­ies into B.C. and, via ferry, onto Vancouver Is­land.

At­tempts to cross the coun­try by au­to­mo­bile pre­date con­struc­tion of the Trans-Canada High­way. In 1912, for ex­am­ple, Thomas Wilby at­tempted to col­lect on a gold medal of­fered by the newly minted Cana­dian High­way As­so­ci­a­tion, a col­lec­tion of car en­thu­si­asts in B.C., by be­ing the first per­son to cross the coun­try by car. He and his driver trav­elled from Hal­i­fax to Vic­to­ria in two months, but had to strap the ve­hi­cle onto a train or steamer for large sec­tions of their jour­ney.

Dr. Perry Doolit­tle, dubbed the “Fa­ther of the Trans-Canada High­way” and founder of the CAA, came much closer to the prize. On Sept. 8, 1925, he and and Ford pho­tog­ra­pher Ed Flick­enger left Hal­i­fax in a new Model T to drive the 7,715 kilo­me­tres to Vancouver with­out leav­ing Canada. They ar­rived Oct. 17, 1925, af­ter cross­ing makeshift bridges over rivers, and hav­ing rights-of-way spe­cially cleared for them on some 14 oc­ca­sions. Al­though it was the first car to cross the coun­try en­tirely un­der its own power, they failed to take the gold medal be­cause they had to use flanged wheels to ride on rail tracks for about 1,340 kilo­me­tres of their jour­ney.

It was only in 1946 that a re­tired bri­gadier from Win­nipeg, Alex Macfar­lane, man­aged the cross-Canada driv­ing feat. He pi­loted a new Chevro­let Style­mas­ter from Louis­burg, N.S., to Vic­to­ria in nine days, tak­ing a route through north­ern On­tario that skirted the still ex­is­tent gap at Wawa. Macfar­lane col­lected the medal at a spe­cial din­ner in the B.C. cap­i­tal to mark the oc­ca­sion.

CP FILE

Ed Ny­nam, 86, poses for a pho­to­graph at his home in Wawa, Ont., on April 4. Ny­nam was one of the orig­i­nal Wawa four who took part in Op­er­a­tion Michipi­coten, a more than 60-kilo­me­tre walk through the bush, mak­ing a state­ment that there was need for the fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of the Trans-Canada High­way from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa.

CP FILE

The Trans-Canada High­way in Wawa, Ont., is shown on April 4.

CP FILE

A sign warn­ing for moose is shown along the Trans-Canada High­way from Sault Ste Marie to Wawa on April 4.

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