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Jolt, Jolt, Jolt Along the Corduroy Road!

January 23, 2023

Hibbert Ware - Corduroy Road over a Swamp in Orillia Township, 1844

Up to the start of the nineteenth century, ground transportation routes in the Kawarthas were foot paths, typically winding through the bush. Though these worked well for the local communities travelling by foot and canoe, the European immigrants who streamed to the region brought with them an expectation of using horses or oxen to tow carts, wagons and buggies.

As the government of Upper Canada distributed the countryside as agricultural lots, each occupant was expected to clear the frontage of their property—half of a 66-foot-wide roadway. In theory, if every lot was taken up and everyone did their duty, this would produce somewhat of a road running along each concession. However, in reality, there was not a family living on every lot, and just having parallel roads running in one direction, would not really facilitate transportation.

Male heads of household were required to perform statute labour, which at times was jeeringly called “statute laziness.” Together, the men of the neighbourhood would work together to improve the local roads. Credit was given for a second day’s work, if the worker brought a team with him. This often entailed clearing land to connect the disparate patches of ‘road.’ Creating the crossroads, was typically challenging, because the surveys were riddled with errors. In theory they were to run perpendicular to the concession roads, between every fifth lot. It was often very difficult to find the survey marks that had been placed on trees years before, and even when they were found, adjacent concessions often did not line up. Township councils had to sort out how to make through roads from road allowances that did not connect with each other. Many of the jogs in the roads that exist to this day are the ongoing embodiment of these surveying errors. Sometimes the surveying errors were so large that making jogs between the surveyed road allowances was not practical, and new roads had to be forced.

In the first generation of the European immigration, local roads were rough indeed—typically nothing better than a strip of land where the tree stumps were cut low enough that the axle of an oxcart could pass. To get across wet spots, before the advent of crushed stone, the local labourers would cut down cedar trees and lay them side by side across the roadway. These crossways (they were a way across a swamp) made the wet stretches passable. The typical travelling experience involved the cart bouncing over stumps, binding in mud holes, and of course getting stuck one way or another. Prudent travellers would take an axe with them in case they needed to do roadwork.

For this generation, corduroy roads represented the most passable routes. But they were certainly not comfortable. Catherine Parr Traill recalled feeling, “jolt, jolt, jolt, till every bone in your body feels as if it were going to be dislocated,” as wooden carts did little to dampen the shock of the wheels dropping between the logs. Upsets were fairly common and horses broke their legs in the gaps. Corduroy roads were so much work to make that they were never common, except for the most improved roads. Even on the best (corduroy) roads, going for a drive was anything but pleasant, until the winter snows came and then sleighing was a joyous (though cold) way to go and visit family and friends.

In the generations that followed, MacAdam (named after the inventor) aka gravel roads revolutionized transportation. The earliest MacAdam roads were truly laborious to build, typically made by made by breaking rocks with hammers. By 1864, not long after the facility opened, prisoners at the Lindsay jail were made to break stone to be spread on the town streets. Penitentiaries, as the name suggests, were places to be penitent for sins and come to salvation through manual labour. The same year the county raised funds to macadamize the roads from Lindsay to Fenelon Falls and Bobcaygeon. After Lindsay purchased stone in 1877 to give work to the unemployed, a local Ladies’ Aid believed the social benefits so great that it petitioned Council to continue the program the next year. It seems that many people believed that breaking stones was a way improve yourself through labour. However, it was dangerous work. Fenelon Falls’ Robert Jackett (forefather of W.G. Jackett and Sons Construction) was nearly blinded by a flying shard while breaking stones for paving.

At about the same time that broken stone was starting to be made, the first stumping machines appeared, which made possible a relatively flat road surface—though extremely laborious, and dangerous. As flying stone shards were hazardous, stumping machines created an incredible amount of force that could break the chains. The advantages of macadamized roads were obvious, and excavating natural deposits of gravel was found to be less laborious and dangerous than breaking stone. But this still entailed manually digging the gravel into carts or dragging it off a ramp with a plow. It was literally back breaking work. Then horses or oxen could haul this hard-won gravel to a location where it could be spread by hand or plow. In 1899, the first stone crushers began appearing locally. Before long no one was paving roads by breaking rocks with a hammer.

By the end of the nineteenth century, gravel roads were becoming the norm—but it would take generations of labour for all the roads to be improved. By the end of the nineteenth century, many roads were good enough that travel started to become pleasant. Macadmaized roads made bicycles practical, then automobiles in the first years of the twentieth century. But country roads were still rough, and travel was much slower than it is today, until the mid-twentieth century, when loaders, cable excavators and later hydraulic backhoes became available. Once crushed stone could be loaded into a dump truck, it became practical to build up a base of crushed stone to create the roads we take for granted (and complain about!) today.

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