Spring thaw in 1927 created a nightmare for motorists

By 1930, trucks and motor cars had, to a large measure, replaced the railways as the most popular means of transportation in Wellington County.

Most of that change occurred during the 1920s. During that decade county council allocated a huge portion of its annual budget to roads, and Queen’s Park greatly expanded the provincial highway system.

Provincial Highway 6, the most important route in the county, had originally been privately-owned toll roads. As a business, the section north of Guelph had been a flop. Wellington County took it over. During the 1860s it saw a huge volume of traffic, and the county spent a fortune in gravelling, draining wet spots, cutting down hills and filling low spots.

Traffic on the route declined significantly after the construction of rail lines through the north of Wellington in the 1870s. The county continued to maintain the road, but at a lower standard than previously. After 1910, the road again became an important route for a new technology – the motor car.

The Ontario government entered the road business in 1916, and over the next decade put together a basic network of roads that were to be paved and maintained to a high standard. The old route from Hamilton to Guelph and on to Fergus, Arthur and Mount Forest was one of a number that were assumed by the provincial Department of Highways in 1925.

In 1926, the ministry announced plans to pave the section between Guelph and Fergus. Work began during the summer of 1926, with the main contract awarded to MacArthur and Company, of Kitchener.

MacArthur opened a roadside gravel pit a short distance north of the Novitiate, not far from Guelph, to supply gravel for the concrete plant and for the sub-layers of the road.

To the north, another gravel pit on Concession 3 of West Garafraxa supplied gravel that was hauled to the section of the road south of Fergus. The contractor used large dump trucks, and those made a mess of Union Street in Fergus, and badly chewed up portions of the existing gravel road. That made the road something of an obstacle course in the fall of 1926.

There was no winter maintenance on the road at that time. The vast majority of motorists put their motor cars away for the winter, though a few brave souls managed to get through when the snow was beaten down.

The hens came home to roost the following April. During the second week of April the thermometer soared to the mid 70s (24 Celsius). The remaining snow melted quickly, causing minor flooding, and the ground thawed quickly. The combination turned sections of the road into sloppy mud. The worst was a section not too far south of Fergus.

The mild weather induced motorists to get their cars running. On April 17, a Sunday, a number of Fergus motorists decide to drive to Guelph and back, enjoying the fresh spring air. Some were able to get past the muddy stretch by driving to one side of it. But the combination of warm weather and traffic only made the muddy stretch wider and sloppier. Mud boiled up as the last of the frost came out of the surface. Eventually that stretch was more-or-less impassible.

By mid-afternoon many of the cars trying to pass that section became hopelessly stuck. An enterprising farmer had been watching the show, and he harnessed a team of horses, grabbed a length of chain, and was soon busy dragging cars out of the mud and onto solid sections of road at either end on the muddy section, which was several hundred feet long.

He charged motorists two dollars each. Most of them grumbled, but they paid because there was no alternative. Car owners realized that such incidents, with their attendant expenses, were one of the risks of a trip by motor car. By dinner time the farmer had $70 in his pocket, probably the most money he ever made for a single day’s work. By then there was competition on the scene. John Johnston, who was the township road overseer, had arrived with his team, accompanied by a second team owned by Anson Pattison. The two made no charge for hauling cars out of the mire. Johnston called out the township grader to mound up a route for traffic that avoided the mud. Bystanders were divided on whether the grader made the situation better or worse. Eventually, though, the grader provided a route that avoided the worst sections of mud.

The scene on that afternoon was one of mayhem. Some motorists tried to get through by taking a run at the muddy stretch. Others proceeded slowly, ready to reverse if the mud seemed to be impossible to get through. Others sought an alternate route around the spots that appeared to be the worst.

None of those strategies guaranteed success. Adding to the frustration of entrapped motorists was the fact that some cars were able to get through. At times, 10 or a dozen cars were marooned in the mud at the same time. With sunset the traffic petered out, and Johnston went home. 

The following morning Johnston returned. Most of the cars were able to get through on their own that day, but some still got stuck. Johnston and his horses extricated 55 cars that day.

Aware of the problem area, many motorists detoured via Elora. The road from there to Guelph was in better condition, but there was one bad hole that snared a few cars.

The public blamed the contractors, whose heavy trucks had cut up the roads badly the previous fall. The contractors, apparently, seemed to agree with public opinion. They brought in a big gasoline-powered road grader to fix up Union Street in Fergus at no cost to the town. The company planned to use that route again in 1927 to haul gravel. Large quantities were still needed to bring the roadway up to a proper standard before the concrete surface could be laid down.

MacArthur wished to avoid problems with roads he would need to use in 1927. Cut-up roads were as much a problem for his construction crew as they were for the general public. There may well have been discussions among the contractor, the province, and the county, which at that time was responsible for a portion of the costs of provincial highways.

In any case, by early May MacArthur brought in a fleet of about two dozen smaller trucks, with a capacity of 3,000 pounds. That would mean many more trips than with the larger vehicles, but there would be fewer problems with damage to the roads.

MacArthur and Company’s crews relocated their concrete mixing plant to a site just south of Fergus in the first week of May 1927. By then the road  had dried considerably in the warm sunny weather that spring.

Ditching and drainage improvements proceeded quickly on the section between Ennotville and Fergus, and the army of trucks kept ahead of the concrete crew in drawing the gravel for the sub-base. MacArthur predicted that they would be able to lay down concrete at the rate of a mile per week.

The paved road opened that summer, and motorists could race through between Fergus and Guelph at the then legal speed limit of 35 miles per hour. That stretch of road subsequently underwent a number of improvements.

Today, 85 years later, some portions of that original concrete roadway are still in place, though covered by additional layers of gravel and asphalt.


Stephen Thorning