Prison labour, postwar road trips, and Gasoline Alley: Highway 11 turns 100

It’s 1,785 kilometres long and a century old — get to know one of Ontario’s most important motor routes
By Sean Marshall - Published on Feb 26, 2020
In 1997, the province downloaded the ownership and maintenance of thousands of kilometres of highways across the province to local municipalities. (Sean Marshall)

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On February 26, 1920, the province assumed responsibility for 16 roads across southern Ontario, uploading them from counties and townships. Assigned numbers in 1925, they formed the backbone of the emerging highway network. Although several highways — 2, 5, 14, and 16 — were wiped from the map in the 1990s, Highway 11 continues to be one of Ontario’s most important motor routes.

The story of Highway 11 begins with Yonge Street, one of Ontario’s first colonial roads. Built to link Lake Ontario with Lake Simcoe, it was soon extended north and west from Holland Landing through Bradford and Barrie, joining Penetanguishine Road to Georgian Bay. After a railway opened between Toronto and Barrie in 1853, Yonge Street’s importance waned until the automobile came on the scene.

After 1920, the Department of Highways became responsible for a growing network of roads in the south, while the Department of Northern Development oversaw the building and maintenance of roads in the north, including in the Muskoka and Parry Sound districts. DOH took on the responsibility for Yonge Street and the Barrie-Washago Road, and DND assumed jurisdiction of the primitive road between Severn Bridge and North Bay. Between 1925 and 1927, DND built a new improved highway, named for Premier Howard Ferguson, from North Bay to Cochrane, and construction continued northwest along the Great Clay Belt.

When DOH and DND merged in 1937, the southern numbering scheme was applied to northern highways. That year, Highway 11 stretched all the way to Hearst — 930 kilometres from Lake Ontario. It was mostly paved between Toronto and North Bay; the rest of its length featured an improved gravel surface.

Still, there was no highway connecting Eastern and Western Canada, and there were large gaps in northern Ontario. In fact, the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William (now Thunder Bay) were reachable only by car via Duluth until the late 1930s, when a highway was finally built west to Kenora and Winnipeg.

Even though a highway was built from Nipigon to Geraldton in the 1930s to connect Thunder Bay to the mines and timber resources near Geraldton, a gap of nearly 250 kilometres remained. To address this, prisoners were sent in from the Burwash Industrial Farm, near Sudbury, to assist in clearing the land —swarms of mosquitos and blackflies helped deter any escape attempts. Although there were a few hiccups — convicts, for example, found themselves locked in the work camps’ “bullpen” for various infractions — Premier H.C. Nixon declared that the inmates had done a “splendid job.” Contractors from across the province completed road grading and surfacing.

Once the highway opened on June 12, 1943, the patient and resourceful motorist could travel from Cape Breton to Vancouver using an all-Canadian route. The relatively flat, straight, and dull route across the top of Ontario proved to be much easier to build than the rugged and scenic stretch of Highway 17 along the shores of Lake Superior. The latter was not completed until September 17, 1960. To this day, many long-distance truckers continue to prefer the older Highway 11 route of the Trans-Canada Highway because of its easier driving conditions.

In the July 5, 1943, edition of the Globe and Mail, reporter Jack Hambleton described the new highway’s condition as “gravelled and wide” and straight and smooth, although he noted the presence of a few potholes near Longlac. A drive along the 240-kilometre stretch could be completed in five hours. Hambleton did, though, caution that there was a lack of services along the route. Today, signs warn motorists of the absence of gas stations for the 211 kilometres between Longlac and Hearst.

The end of wartime rationing in 1946 saw Ontarians hitting the roads in unprecedented numbers. Highway 11 fed traffic from the province’s industrial heartland toward new highways. Highway 69 ran from Gravenhurst toward Parry Sound and Sudbury, while Highway 60 made Algonquin Park accessible to more visitors.

To meet the demand, Ontario in 1952 constructed its first fully grade-separated highway, which ran between North York and Highway 11 north of Barrie, bypassing many towns and villages along Yonge Street. The section north of Barrie became known as “Gasoline Alley” thanks to all the fuel stations, restaurants, and shops that sprouted up there to serve summer vacationers and long-distance travellers. Bypasses and diversions were built around cities and towns from Orillia to New Liskeard to direct through traffic away from congested downtowns.

In northwestern Ontario, Highway 11 was extended west along Highway 17 through Thunder Bay and Kakabeka Falls and then to Atikokan, Fort Frances, and Rainy River. By 1965, Highway 11 had reached its ultimate length of 1,882 kilometres and featured a 4.8-kilometre causeway across Rainy Lake.

By the 1970s, Highway 11 had earned notoriety for serious collisions, particularly in high-traffic sections in Simcoe and Muskoka. Roland Devereux, the assistant commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, called the undivided four-lane road between Barrie and Washago “the most dangerous highway in Ontario” because of all the drivers turning into and out of gas stations and other businesses. Although the Ministry of Transportation and Communications originally planned an extension of Highway 400 from Coldwater to Gravenhurst to bypass that hazardous road, it was routed toward Highway 69 and Sudbury instead. So the province arrived at a different answer: it constructed a steel barrier between northbound and southbound traffic (U-turns became possible only at new overpasses), and a new divided highway between Gravenhurst and Huntsville. The dual carriageway was completed to North Bay in 2012. 

These highway improvements meant that many businesses closed and were replaced by franchise restaurants and coffee shops at major interchanges. But one burger stand came up with an ingenious solution. After Webers, located between Orillia and Washago, was cut off from southbound traffic, it purchased an old pedestrian overpass from Toronto’s CN Tower in 1983, installed it over the highway, and built a new parking lot on the other side. The footbridge remains a local landmark.

In 1997, as an austerity measure, the province downloaded the ownership and maintenance of thousands of kilometres of highways across the province to local municipalities, reversing the trend started 75 years earlier. These roads — which included several of those original 1920s highways — were deemed to be of purely local importance. The oldest section of Highway 11 between Toronto and Barrie once again became known only as Yonge Street. Ontario’s most storied highway, which had once spanned a distance of 1,882 kilometres, was reduced to 1,785.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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