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  • Ontario, Canada

Roads & Road Builders

In 1793 an Act of the first Parliament of Upper Canada placed all roads under the supervision of overseers, called pathmasters.  More local information about Pathmasters is included in the Westmeath Township Minute Books section of this site.  So the state of the roads was addressed right from the beginning of the Upper Canada democratic process.

Standard corduroy construction of bridge bed over swamp

A Pathmaster was appointed by Westmeath Council each year for each road, to supervise the work crew on that road.  The Pathmaster supervised and organized the teams and men. Sometimes the work was to break a new road, haul sand or gravel to fill-in a muddy or potholed section.  Digging a culvert or ditching would help drain a wet area.  Sometimes a small bridge was needed to be built.

Crosslaying was the name given to building a “corduroy” road where logs are laid across the road in swampy, low areas.  Bridges were built the same way with the crosslaying of cedar or  black ash poles or logs held together by boarding parallel to the sides.

Early road development was accomplished by a system of “Statutory Labour,” which required settlers to maintain the road adjacent to their property or to work 3 to 12 days each year on road maintenance. Over time, the statutory labour system was commuted into payment of a tax or fine in lieu of labour, creating the first source of funds for road expenditures.

Westmeath Township’s Statute Labour was under the Bathurst District jurisdiction and that bylaw was passed in Perth (the district seat), in February 1847, replacing the original of 1842. BYLAW – Providing for the Due Performance of Statute Labour.  This detailed Bylaw is archived by the University of Alberta and digitized by the Toronto Public Library.

Teams of Oxen were the early main beasts of burden and some of the area’s corduroy road beds were massive as shown in this undated picture from the Ottawa Valley,  by an unknown photographer. The lumber behind the last ox stands higher than  that last ox. Taken from Chapter 5 “The Ottawa Valley” in the book “Seeking a Better Future; the English Pioneers of Ontario and Quebec” by Lucille H. Campey.

“All the wagons and carts were made locally. Two-wheeled carts were used in the sixties, as roads were too rough for any other means of locomotives except horse-back. Oxen were commonly used.”

“All the wagons and carts were made locally. Two-wheeled carts were used in the sixties, as roads were too rough for any other means of locomotives except horse-back. Oxen were commonly used.”

Travel by road in early Canada was difficult and often hazardous. The roads were so bad that most people preferred horseback or walking rather than vehicular transportation. Settlers’ vehicles were usually homemade and crude. Conestoga wagons were used for carrying heavy loads (as much as 9 m long, drawn by 6-horse teams) and then 4-wheeled buckboards. The elite of the new cities and towns of Lower Canada had the caleche, (open carriages) and the wealthy of Upper Canada and the Maritimes drove buggies. The stagecoach era began at the start of the 19th century and lasted more than 50 years.

But travel was still an adventure in clumsy, uncomfortable vehicles, ranging from open wagons to ungainly carriages hung on leather springs. In winter they were mounted on runners and some carried wood stoves for warmth. The stagecoach era waned with the coming of the railways.

Who decided the placement of a road?  Westmeath Township, Ross Township and Pembroke Township were all surveyed in the 1820-30s. The team of surveyors from the Geologic Survey of Canada was led by John McNaughton. McNaughton qualified as a deputy provincial surveyor in 1821. These roads were part of a grid of concessions and lots dividing the raw land into parcels available for purchase by incoming settlers. A uniform road allowance of 66 feet was set aside between concessions by the surveyors. The majority of these allowances were fashioned into roads by the municipality; but there are still some unused allowances in the countryside.

Most of the roads run “straight and true” such as the Zion Line, Gore Line or LaPasse Road to follow the surveyed route. Others in the township maintain their more historic routes first used by the earliest travelers; for example Beachburg Road, Grants Settlement Road and Westmeath Road  curve through the community along the old routes. For more see MAPS.

Advert from 1888 Directory of Renfrew County

The Gore Line

The Gore Line which runs from Westmeath to Lapasse, (then called Gower Point), dates back to the year 1840, and the Gower Line (later shortened to Gore), was still thickly wooded and the homesteader settled here in log houses as there were no saw mills at which they could get lumber to build.

Oxen were used in these days to clear the land and some of the first families on this Line were: Bob Dickson, Bill Dickson, James Dickson, Tom Dickson, Adam Dickson, Bill Sharpe, Ben Wright, Robinson Doughterty, Champagne, Bazile Tessier, Baptiste Tessier, Jack Davidson, Dan McLeese (on the Malloy Farm on B Line), Alex Roberts, Olivier LaBine (father of Joseph Labine and Medric LaBine, Alex Shields, T. Brooks. Jas. Kilgore, Thomas McBride, Wm. Grieves, T. Tassier later owned by Edward McDonald where Mrs. Alex Fraser was born; Wm. Baird, Wm. Gourley, Noah Chamberlain, Thomas Wright.

Later on as the farms were cleared  and more settlers came in, there were farms that changed hands and these were some of the changes: John Drysdale, Wm. Jeffery, Jeff McBride, Conley, Jos. LaBine.

Hauling the gravel to do concession road work took many able men and horses doing hard labour.  W.A. McMullen tells of the hard work of building the Gore Line.

-Notes from the Westmeath Tweedsmuir Book and other sources.

Beachburg Road

The first settlers traveled here by the Ottawa River and as time went on trails were blazed; then roads of a primitive type were the next step in transportation.  Apparently they left much to be desired as described in the Pembroke Observer, dated August 1, 1882, that improvements had taken place.

“For years a section of the Pembroke-Beachburg Road lying on the eastern side of Mrs. McCackren’s Hotel, had been the dread of teamsters.   The piece of road was very sandy and wheels sank deep into it, making it very difficult to get along even with small loads.  We are glad to say that that state is about to end as that road is receiving a thorough coat of gravel, under supervision of competent men of the neighbourhood.”

Travelers, Stagecoaches and Hotels

The Beachburg Road was becoming a  major artery both for commerce with teamsters hauling supplies to and from the large lumbering concerns but also for other travelers.  And those travelers required food and lodging both for themselves and their teams. The stage coach line meant a steady stream of travelers  through the area.

In Evelyn Price’s writing we find:

“When the Canadian Central Railway, predecessor of the Canadian Pacific Railway, reached Renfrew in December, 1872, Pembroke was linked to it by a stage coach line via Beachburg which had two hotels, Beach’s and Sullivan’s.  In that era Beach’s Hotel was the stop where the first fair was held in 1857.

“David Brown resided two miles west of Beachburg and his residence of 15 rooms was a “stopping place” for travelers.  His grandson Harris S. Brown, still lives in the house which has been in the Brown family for five generations.

“Another noteworthy memory of this homestead was the well, adjacent to both house and roadway, with its lattice-work covering which was quite picturesque. Perhaps 50 years ago, one of the most memorable sights along the Pembroke – Beachburg Road would be to see Brown’s peacock perched on the gate leading to the farmyard, if one came along at an opportune time when he was spreading his magnificent tail in all it’s glory.

“In later years several of the rooms of this huge house which could accommodate many travelers, were removed to and adjoining lot where the farm buildings of John A. Brown were situated.  This farm is now owned and operated by Delmar Cotnam.     

“Another one of these hostelries nearer Pembroke was McCracken’s Hotel, located at Chaffey’s Corner,* which as far as we can ascertain through research, also housed the Post Office for Perretton.    Allan McCracken was the proprietor and early residents recall the small stopping place on the farm now owned by Mrs. Veldon Kenny.  This hotel was replaced by a large brick building containing thirteen rooms plus corridors.  The family was very proud of it and used to refer to the height of the ceiling by such remarks as Mamma’s high lofty rooms” with the accent on the last syllable of “Mamma”.  The old hotel was dismantled in 1922.

“Prior to 1893, residents went to McCracken’s for their mail. A more efficient mail service was adopted with mail received from Pembroke via the C.P.R. as it was taken of the train at Government Road and taken from there by Richard Chaffey to the Post Office at Chaffey’s Corners in Perretton.  Hiram Howard used to travel the distance from Forester’s Falls to Pembroke and we presume that he delivered mail to the post offices en route before Mr. Chaffey assumed these duties.”

*The Chaffey’s Corner junction or intersection sits at the northern end of the ancient  Stoqua Portage used by the Indians when coming overland from the Muskrat Lake watershed to the Lower Allumette Lake of the Ottawa River.


In more modern times in 1948, the Westmeath Road became the site of the notorious murder of James “Jimmie” Edwards, a 26 year old cab driver. A crime without an obvious motive. For the whole story: 1948 James Edward Murder on Westmeath Road

In Front Westmeath the Cecile Family operated Cecile’s Hotel.  That hotel and others in the “Big Bend,” gained business from the lumbering industry and the constant to and fro of supplies, teams and men.  The teams could only go approximately 20 miles before needed a rest stop; so convenient “Stopping Places” sprang up along the routes.

Union House Hotel, Beachburg – From the Beachburg W.I. Tweedsmuir Book:

“The road from Pembroke to Ottawa was built in 1855; from Pembroke it passed through Beachburg Forester’s Falls , by the Kerr Line across the Ottawa River to Postage du Fort and lumbering centres and on through Lower Canada to Ottawa.

“This was a lively place in the days when hundreds of teams loaded with supplies for Pembroke and Mattawa passed through the village every day in peak season.  Often as many as a 100 teams spent the night at this hotel.”

Road conditions were being improved all the time through the era of the horse, automobile and train travel expansion as the territory became settled and business prospered.  In Beachburg Village the sidewalks were wooden and the roadway was graveled.  Then in 1937 the modern convenience of a smooth, concrete roadway was a luxury to the traveler.

1937 New Concrete Road Surface
1920’s Beachburg Gravel Road and Wooden Sidewalks

From the front page of the Ottawa Journal, 1956:

“Heavy bulldozers have removed the last remnants of the old corduroy on what was formerly Highway 17 from Beachburg to Pembroke. (A corduroy road was logs laid crosswise over very wet, soft ground and a smooth ride was out of the question.)

Prior to rebuilding this section of the road in 1922, a few hundred yards south-east of Chaffey’s Corner, younger members of the family remember with keen delight how they used to go bumpety-bump over the corduroy in early spring while the frogs went “peep-peep”. The corduroy road traversed a low lying strip referred to by old-timers as the “swale”. In later years Highway 17 was re-routed directly to Cobden, bypassing this vicinity.

Now in 1956 the old roadbed has been elevated two feet in readiness for the asphalt surfacing- and the old logs may be seen strewn along the roadside.  Time passes and old landmark fade but if these reminiscences are recorded they will have a certain historical significance in the years to come. 

Westmeath Road

Smooth, Easy Running:   Packed snow Main Street of Westmeath Village in the horse & cutter era looking upstreet from in front of the Conroy, now Kenny’s store. Picture courtesy of Patti Desjardins.
1950s Gravel Main Street; Westmeath Village,  with Ed Conroy and dog out for a stroll, but not using the available cement sidewalks. The Conroy Stone & gas pump is at right.  Photo courtesy of Patti Desjardins.

This photo below is from the Westmeath WI Tweedsmuir Book  & shows the men and teams in Fred Laderoute’s gravel pit on his farm on the Westmeath Road. Gravel was always loaded from a pit closest to the road being worked on. As a result, many of today’s farms throughout the area have an old overgrown pit. A lasting reminder of the local farmer’s and neighbour’s hard labour on road work.

Teamsters and labourers at Fred Laderoute’s gravel pit on Westmeath Road.

The gravel was loaded by muscle power and shovels, but how was it off-loaded at the road work-site?

Wagons with removable boards on the floor were used.  When the board was slid /pulled out off the floor, down would fall the gravel between the wagon wheels on the road surface.  These wagons would be the same as used with sides attached for haying by the farmer.  They had the nick-name of butterfly wagons because when they were pulled along the road the two side walls would “flutter” like a butterfly’s wings.

Shovel, by shovel, by shovel…men loading trucks in the 1940’s in the P.J. Fynn Gravel Pit on Lookout Road. At the middle truck Ed Conroy is in the overalls and Archille Gervais is standing at the opposite fender. Filling a truck by shovel was undoubtedly hard work! Photo courtesy of Patti Desjardins.

The Bromley Line

“On the East end of Bromley Line the late Rich Cahill owned 200 acres along with a broken front, which he willed to his nephews the late Richard, Harmel and Samuel Cahill.

Other pioneers on the East end of B.L. were, John Wright Sr. who came from Aylmer, Quebec, Patrick Lawless, Louis Derwa, Sam McLeach, S. Marion, Mr. Labrasse.”

From Myrtle Bromley’s writings 1932.

Statute law was in effect for all of the nineteen century. Co-operation amongst the settlers in building the road past their own farms was essential. Men who defaulted on statute labour were fined by the municipal council. The council had introduced the abolishment of Statute Labour in 1898 but was still wanting to use the method in 1905. Men who performed the labour had their taxes reduced accordingly.

“The Colonization Roads were roads created during the 1840s and 1850s to open up or provide access to areas in Central and Eastern Ontario for settlement and agricultural development. The colonization roads were used by settlers, much like modern-day highways, to lead them towards areas for settlement.”

“The terrain these roads pass through is interlaced with many hills, lakes, forests, swamps and  bedrock  outcroppings. The location of many of these roads is in the Canadian Shield, among the most rugged terrain in all of Ontario. The soil is generally thin and unsuitable for the agricultural development that these roads were built to spur. Most of the colonization roads are not provincially maintained highways. Instead they follow  county roads, and local town/township roads.  – From Wikipedia

By the 1920’s provincial grants money was available to the township for the building and repairing of the road system.  Now the road crews could be paid but the local men were still recruited to do works on their own roads.

This original document 1928 Pay List sets out the “Pay List of Workmen Employed on the Between Lots 10 and 14 West Front East Colonization Road from the 14 of June 1928 to the 19th of June 1928 both included”,and was overseen by John A. Graham.   He certifies “that the services as are herein set forth have been performed”, in hauling gravel out of the gravel pit on the Bromley Farm.

The workmen were local farmers who were happy to get the cash payment for being a part of the road crew.  The hauling of gravel was done by teamsters with teams with wagons. The teamsters were paid at $4.50 per day and the labourers got $2.25 per day.

From Wikipedia:

“The Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) is the provincial ministry of the government of Ontario     which is responsible for   transport infastructure  and related law inOntario . The ministry traces its roots back over a century to the 1890s, when the province began training Provincial Road Building Instructors. In 1916, the Department of Highways (DOH) was formed and tasked with establishing a network of provincial highways. The first was designated on 1918, and by the summer of 1925, sixteen highways were numbered.”

The province began training Provincial Road Building Instructors in 1896. These instructors worked to establish specifications for the almost 90,000 kilometres (56,000 mi) of county   – and  township- maintained roads. That same year, the Ontario Good Roads Association was formed. Under considerable pressure from the Good Roads Association and the ever increasing number of drivers, which the province itself licensed at that time, the Department of Highways was formed in 1916 with the goal of creating a provincial highway network.”

1930’s Great Depression “Bennett Buggy” named for Prime Minister R.B. Bennett

Through the 1920s cars became cheaper and their numbers multiplied; registration of motor vehicles increased  to nearly 1.62 million by the end of the decade. Good roads associations, national and provincial, led the crusade for improved road travel, and expenditures on roads by all governments tripled. By 1930 the annual outlay was $94 million. Methods and technology for building roads improved as horse-drawn scrapers and graders gave way to steam power for shovels and rollers. However, road building in most provinces ceased and maintenance was reduced during the Great Depression and WWII as men and materials were urgently needed in the war effort.

McLachlan Car 1917
Ford Model T Car 1921
A large funeral cortege entering Westmeath on the Gore Line. An early hearse leads the way.