12 - Ignace Driftwood, April 17, 2013
Building the Trans-Canada Highway Through Ignace This article originally appeared in Driftwood in April, 1979, during Ignace’s Centennial year. - By Betty Dyck Today we take the Trans-Canada Highway for granted, and even have the temerity to complain about its condition. Men employed on construction through Ignace will remember the problems encountered and agree that it was a difficult stretch to work on. Long before the railway was thought of, Palliser described the area this way: “simply impenetrable. Jagged outcroppings of rock, quaking sucking ‘muskeg’ in the hollows; forest and bush as tangled as any jungle; lakes scattered like pockmarks every few miles.... badlands above Lake Superior imposed a barrier that effectively cut off western Canada from the east.” - Douglas Hill: The Opening of the Canadian West (London: Heinemann, 1967) p. 61
On this western front of Northwestern Ontario an army of men built a highway through this brush and rock. The Kenora district was divided into five divisions: 1) Kenora to the Manitoba boundary - 35 miles; 2) Kenora to Vermilion Bay - 55 miles; 3) Vermilion Bay to Dyment - 70 miles; 4) Dyment to Ignace - 35 miles; 5) Ignace to English River - 35 miles. Work began in early 1931 on the Ignace to Osaquan stretch, where 42 miles of preliminary line were run and 32 miles of final line completely established by October 22. Five camps on this section engaged in actual construction. In two month’s time 32 miles of road were surveyed. On the Ignace to English River section, survey commenced at English River on August 28, 1931, and by the middle of November, 55 miles of preliminary lines were run and 28 miles of final line established. Seven camps were in full swing. At first, Mr. Frank Petursson was in charge of location work. He was recalled to take charge as division engineer for the Vermilion Bay to Hawk Lake section. Mr. W.R. Scott replaced him as division engineer at English River. Construction workers came from almost everywhere... locals from Osaquan and Ignace, “soup kitchen”men from down east and landed emigrants. For the benefit of immigrant road workers, Frontier College1 sent young men as tutors into camps. These men were employed as ordinary labourers during the day, then conducted English classes in the evening. In the Kenora district one Frontier College student reported that since September 1931, some 3,000 men attended his classes. During the long winter evenings the men also entertained themselves. Some had brought musical instruments along - harmonicas, violins, accordions, guitars. Naturally, poker games were popular. Recreation was not forgotten, for whenever Canadian workers get together there will be found sports’ enthusiasts. Competition between camps was kept alive by inter-camp hockey games. A typical challenge appearing in the Kenora Miner and News of the day (December 28, 1931) read: “Camp 1-F-13 Trans-Canada Highway editor, Kenora Miner and News, Kenora, Ontario. “Will you kindly issue the following challenge through the columns of your valuable newspaper. We, ‘Sundin’s Scorpions’, challenge any hockey team on the TransCanada Highway or in the world to a game or series of games of hockey at any time or any place for fun or money and amount or a milk fund. “We do not use a goal-tender, and will donate a bed in the charity ward of any hospital to any opposing player unfortunate enough to get past centre ice. “Send your bluffs and let’s show you up.” Manager, Sundin’s Scorpions, Camp 1-F-13 The fun and games helped make life interesting, but the work went on during the day. On July 1, 1932, representatives of the Provinces of Manitoba and Ontario met at the boundary to officially open the stretch between Winnipeg and Kenora. As work progressed on the Kenora to English River section, latest unrest in camp burst into outright rebellion. At the Martin Camp, expulsion of some alleged agitators caused a near riot. Trouble at Gull River Camp turned out to be of a less serious nature. OPT Constable W. Downer, summoned by the camp superintendent, single-handedly marched the entire camp to Ignace along the railway tracks. He warned them he would shoot the first man to fall out of line. upon reaching Ignace, Downer told them if they behaved they could return to Gull River; if not, he would take care of them! The whole crew sheepishly walked back to camp. Apparently the sixteen-mile round grip cooled their heels. Nearly twenty strikes rumbled through the Ignace area.All left a residue of ill will. However, on July 2, 1935 the highway opened officially with a motorcade travelling from Fort William to Kenora. During the previous night it poured rain. Water seeped into
Driftwood sought information about the businesses listed above: M. Berglund & Co. - Ignace-raised historian Elinor (Berglund) Barr writes, “My dad Tony Berglund had a few of the cabins built by 1935, and also had a gas pump beside the highway, there beside the millpond where the lodge used to be. It doesn't sound as though the lodge was built yet. The dance pavilion was the centre cabin on the island, of vertical squared-timber construction. “The confectionery store was the front part of the house on Front Street. I remember the fishing tackle, soda fountain, tobaccos and camera supplies. He also sold ice cream, candy, magazines and pop. It was common in those days to put a business in your wife's name as a hedge against bankruptcy, and the "M" in M. Berglund & Co. is my mother. Dad's initials, A.R., stood for Anton Ronald but everybody called him Tony.” Anderson & Harris Service Station - Ignace-raised historian Betty (Jackson) Dyck says, “The Anderson & Harris ad only mentions "refreshments". I can't remember when the family of Mrs (Betty) Harris, Jim and Norma arrived (Doreen stayed in Dryden and lived with her grandmother so she could attend school there; David was born later)--certainly about that time. The restaurant served many locals and even CPR men who found Mrs. Harris' home cooking better than the Y. Dot Defeo would be able to give you more details--she may even have worked in the restaurant.” Indeed, Dot (Tait) Defeo replied: “Yes I did work at Anderson and Harris in the summer months. I met my husband, John, there. Betty Harris introduced us. There was a dining room as well as a cafe with booths. The food was excellent. Collins Meat Market was right across the highway from the current library. It was open for a couple of years. I believe that Sam’s Cafe was in what is now the Ignace tavern, the old hotel.” (The only remaining buildings are the Tavern and Berglund house on Front Street between the Tavern and Fire Hall.) the glass chambers of the gas pumps at Etherington’s Garage. It was Bert Dunlop first at the pump with his 1929 Model A Ford who got the water. The rest of the official motorcade took on gas without incident. With this last link in the Trans-Canada Highway welded in the Kenora division, Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods was now fully opened to automobile traffic. NOTE 1: Frontier College - “A voluntary, funded organization founded in Toronto by Alfred Fitzpatrick, a Presbyterian minister from Nova Scotia and incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1922. Through correspondence courses and field teachers, it provides educational opportunities for workers in isolated mining, lumber and railway camps. College students on summer vacation work by day with the labourers and in the evening offer free instruction in subjects of mutual interest.” (Colombo’s Canadian References, J.R. Colombo, 1976.Oxford University Press)
Welcome arch at the intersection of today’s Pine Steet and Highway 17 built for the Trans-Canada Highway cavalcade which drove through Ignace on the official opening date: July 2, 1935. The view is looking west.