WAWA, Ontario — 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.”
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-a-year drives. As the story goes, famed artist AY 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, NL, 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 BC 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.