The iconic Trans-Canada Highway turns 50
Steeped in rich history, the 7,600 kilometre coast-to-coast stretch of road that connects the country winds its way through all the landmarks that give Canada its true identity
I've just driven the entire Trans-Canada Highway, some 7,600 kilometres that stretches from St. John's, Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia.
Why? Good question.
The official reason is because there's a book to be written about it. This is the highway's 50th anniversary, after all, opened by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on Sept. 3, 1962. I wanted to know if our Canadian icon is still important or just something now to brag about at international cocktail parties. There are lots of roads in the world; there are plenty of highways in Canada. What makes this one so special?
The unofficial reason for the journey, of course, is because I'm always looking for a good road trip. Usually, road trips are rushed affairs, hustling somewhere to enjoy the drive but with little time to stop and enjoy the scenery. So this summer, I slowed it all down using the "book research" as an excuse, and instead of the frantic 10 provinces in 10 days (which is easy if you just keep going), I took 10 weeks. Much better.
It helped that my ride was a 2012 Chevy Camaro convertible, supplied for this trip by General Motors. It was loaned for three months; I put almost 27,000 kilometres on it, driving back and forth and twice across the country. The only thing I needed to change on it was the oil, and it didn't put a tire turn wrong.
Tough going in the Bad Old Days
It's often a surprise for people to realize the TCH is only 50 years old. It's taken for granted these days that there's a road leading pretty much anywhere we want to go, and the road has always been there.
In fact, it's been just a hundred years since the very first Canadian coast-to-coast road trip, driven by two guys in an open REO. Thomas Wilby and Jack Haney took 53 days to make it from Halifax, N.S. to Victoria, B.C, but there were no roads in many parts of the country. When they reached North Bay, they had to put their car on trains and boats to cross the 1,700 km to Winnipeg, and in the Rockies, they had to detour through the state of Washington.
The final road that made it possible to drive the width of Canada was not built until 1943, a stretch of gravel from Hearst to Geraldton in northern Ontario. It wasn't the Trans-Canada, although it became a part of it when Diefenbaker eventually declared the highway open.
That was a proud day for Canada, despite both Newfoundland and New Brunswick boycotting the ceremony at B.C.'s Rogers Pass; the two provinces were holding out for more money to finish paving and smoothing the road. The TCH really wasn't complete until 1970, and even now, billions of construction dollars in Quebec and Alberta are widening the road into four lanes to make it safer and more efficient.
Those are key words these days: safety and efficiency. It's much safer to separate fast moving traffic from vehicles travelling in the opposite direction, to prevent head-on collisions, so the opposing lanes should be divided by a wide median of grass or even trees. This is the Trans-Canada across the prairies, and now in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, yet in those parts of the country where the TCH is the only practical road, such as Newfoundland and northern Ontario, the highway is still just two lanes. Those trucks with the massive moose catchers over their grilles own the asphalt when they're bearing down on your vehicle.