Highway departments undertook paving despite 1930 Depression

This column has touched on the subject of highway and road improvements during the 1920s several times in recent years. The biggest of those programs was the one undertaken by the provincial Department of Highways, which paved and otherwise improved a huge mileage of highways in the late 1920s.

George S. Henry was the Minister of Highways during that period, and he pushed for more and more improved roads. Later, he took over control of the provincial government after the resignation of Premier Howard Ferguson.

As Premier he was somewhat tight-lipped with reporters, but as highways minister he was always ready to explain and defend his policies.

Henry was well aware of the explosion in motor car and truck registrations in the late 1920s. That had produced great growth in revenue, but Henry recognized that it would all be needed to improve the road system. He often pointed out that paved and improved roads required far less maintenance than gravel ones. He built as much highway mileage as his department could afford, and he pestered his cabinet colleagues to allocate more and more money.

In 1930, as the Depression set in and provincial revenues started to decline, Henry resisted the impulse to cut back on construction. As well as a major construction program announced early in the year, Henry added additional projects during the summer of 1930. In the first week of July he announced that the province would rebuild and pave an additional 63 miles of highway, and build five new bridges.

It was the third major announcement that year, raising the total of new roads to 200 for the year. That would raise the provincial highway total of paved highways to more than 2,000, with another 500 still surfaced in gravel.

In Wellington County the new work included a stretch of Highway 9 from Teviotdale east to Concession 7 of Arthur Township, about halfway to Arthur Village, awarded to the Godson Contracting Company, and a five mile stretch of Highway 6 north from Fergus awarded to H.T. Routly. Most contracts at that time were for five to seven miles of road.

Godson Construction began activity at once. At that time major road projects involved setting up a temporary camp. Godson had 90 or so men working on the project. The camp for Highway 9 was on the farm of James Martin, as was the plant to mix the concrete required, including machinery to excavate gravel and to crush, screen and wash it. The company also drilled five shallow wells to supply water. Godson sent in a senior employee, a man named Rogers, to supervise the work.

Rogers enjoyed talking to reporters. Interestingly, though his current project was for a concrete road, he did not hesitate to voice his preference for asphalt. He stated that the type of asphalt laid the previous summer between Arthur and Mount Forest was, in his opinion, the best road surface for highways in this part of Ontario.

Rogers began hauling and putting down gravel less than a month after winning the contract. His crew fired up the concrete mixing plant about Aug. 18.

The work proceeded quickly, but not without incident. On Sept. 15 one of the men, Joe Cassidy, fell from a load of reinforcing mesh that a Godson truck was hauling from the Arthur CPR station to the road construction crew. The road near the station was very slippery following a shower, and the truck slipped into the ditch. Cassidy jumped but landed on his head. Another man named Haskett was also on the load. Both men were taken to Arthur’s McFarlane Hospital. Haskett was released later that day, but Cassidy’s injuries were more serious, and he remained in hospital for a lengthier period.

Godson encountered several other mishaps, none of which resulted in injuries. There were no further major delays. The company was able to mix, pour and smooth about 600 linear feet of pavement per day.

The concrete roadway at that time was poured in short sections, with expansion joints between them. That soon caused problems, when sections moved vertically due to moisture and frost. Periodically, a crew would pour tar into the cracks to seal them from surface water, but that measure only partly remedied the problems with concrete pavement.

The other major project in Wellington County that summer, slightly more than five miles north from Fergus to Cumnock on Highway 6, was done with an asphalt compound called penetration pavement. The project involved some straightening and cutting down of hills. This stretch of road had caused many problems in winter with drifting snow, and the work was, in part, meant to reduce those problems.

The H.T. Routly firm encountered some difficulties with the contract, and eventually the work was undertaken by a firm called Armstrong Brothers. Preparation of the new portions of roadway took longer than expected, but good weather that fall prevented serious problems. The work carried on into November. The firm put on a big push to finish up early that month, and completed the project on Nov. 6.

The improvements to the highway delighted all those who used the road. The original route was that of the old Fergus and Arthur Road Company, and there had been few improvements to it over the years other than thin coats of new gravel and a cheap attempt at pavement earlier in the 1920s. The road was narrow with steep hills and a few narrow cuttings that always filled with snow in the winter. The route was completely unsuited for the speeds and traffic levels of the 1920s and 1930s.

In this era the Department of Highways seemed to be experimenting with various pavement types. About half the contracts let in 1930 were for concrete pavement. The others were for various types of asphalt, described as “asphaltic concrete,” “mixed macadam,” and “penetration pavement.”

Specific details of these pavements do not seem to have survived, but textbooks published at the time describe versions of these road surfaces.

Asphaltic concrete was similar to the asphalt surfaces used on modern roads, though sometimes laid with Portland cement as part of the formula. Mixed macadam consisted of two or more inches of hot asphalt compound, rolled, and then covered with crushed rock or pea gravel, and rolled again. It produced a good non-skid finish, but the surface had to be renewed every two or three years. Penetration pavement was a patented process, with five or six layers of sand and crushed rock, with layers of tar in between to minimize water infiltration. It was the most complicated and time consuming to lay, and was the type used for the Highway 6 project.

Few of the engineering details of these projects are easily available, if they have survived at all, but there may be documents squirreled away in a Highway Department repository somewhere that contains the specifications.

The 1930 work on Highway 6 was only the first of several projects for that stretch of road, which has subsequently been rebuilt several times. Later work produced more straightening, new bridges, wider pavement, and improved sight lines.

None of the men who worked on those projects are still living today. Their memories of the details of those projects, and the methods used, would make fascinating reading.


Stephen Thorning