Travelling by automobile in Ontario, 1919 style

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

A while ago I realized that I was overdue for my periodic visit to Jeff Ferguson’s antique and book shop, where a couple of hours of perusal usually turns up something interesting.

This time I suffered a hernia carrying out a large pile of old railway magazines, but the most fascinating item I turned up was a copy of the 1919 Ontario Motor League (OML) Automobile Guide.

I have a couple of these books from the late 1920s and 1930s, but the 1919 edition is interesting because it predates widespread automobile ownership and road improvement. The road system of 1919 existed to get people to nearby towns and railway stations. Only those with a sense of adventure undertook a long trip by car.

The OML is familiar to motorists today for its emergency road service. The organization provided this function in 1919, but at that time the league had a very high profile for other activities. It was a major lobbyist for improved roads, and it erected directional signs on roads and at intersections before governments provided them. The OML also published a monthly magazine, The Canadian Motorist.

Automobile ownership in 1919 was still something of a rich person’s hobby. Cars were unreliable and relatively expensive. OML membership cost $5 in 1919, a significant sum when most hourly wages were in the 20 to 30 cents range, and the book cost a further $2. There were about 100,000 cars in Ontario in 1919, and Motor League membership hovered around the 7,000 mark.

The 1919 OML book is a hefty volume, at 734 pages. It includes road maps, border crossing advice and many advertisements, mostly for garages and hotels. The bulk of its contents consists of detailed routes between towns.

There was no numbering or identification system for roads in 1919. Motorists had to be guided by roadside features, and by the OML signs where these existed. The counties maintained a few roads, many of which had their origins in the old toll road system.

As an example of one such route, the 1919 OML handbook gives directions for driving from Mount Forest to Fergus on what was once the Fergus and Arthur Toll Road.

This gravel road was maintained by Wellington County at the time. There were no road signs or markers other than those put up by the OML. The province assumed control of the road in 1925.

Many garage operators placed advertisements in the handbook. The cars of 1919 required constant mechanical attention and tire repairs.

The provincial government had been involved in roads through subsidies since the 1890s, but there was no formal Department of Highways until 1916. The province completed a concrete highway from Toronto to Hamilton in 1915, but the numbered system of provincial highways did not begin until the 1920s.

Other than the Toronto to Hamilton Highway (later Highway 2), there were no provincial highways in 1919. The routes suggested by the OML in its handbook used the most serviceable roads maintained by the various counties and townships. Some of these routes had once been toll roads.

An automobile trip in 1919 required advanced planning, and lots of time. Most long journeys were undertaken only in the summer. Few, for example, would undertake a trip from Elora or Fergus to Toronto for other than recreational reasons. Routes were often circuitous. Speed limits were set at 20 miles per hour in towns and 25 in the country, although the condition of many roads necessitated lower speeds.

The OML cautioned members that “advice as to road conditions, routes, hotels and garages should be obtained before starting on a motor trip.” The league also boasted of the benefits and achievements of its legal department, useful when “a member meets with an accident, and is sued for damages, or thinks of entering suit.” In one case, the OML successfully defended a garage owner who had been charged with selling gasoline on Sunday.

One paragraph is worth quoting in full: “The legal department has employed detectives to investigate automobile outrages, such as the placing of obstructions on the highway after dark and the wholesale spreading of glass and tacks on the road. Convictions have been secured in cases of this character, which serve as a deterrent to this form of crime.”

The proliferation of automobiles was not greeted universally as progress. Local merchants and livery operators feared a loss of business, and municipal governments shuddered at the cost of road improvements and maintenance demanded by motorists.

Reckless and aggressive driving habits by some car owners had branded motorists in general as a boorish breed.

In the decade following the publication of the 1919 OML book, automobile registrations in Ontario increased by 15% per year, and annual provincial expenditures on roads more than tripled.

The 1931 OML book shows a provincial highway system with numbers up to Highway 33. This basic system, conceived and built in the 1920s and later upgraded, is still with us today.

The 1919 OML book provides a glimpse at highway travel at the point when the automobile was beginning its ascendency as the prime means of travel in Ontario.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on July 5, 1995.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015