Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Pathmasters and road-work in Canada

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX  (1863) 
Pathmasters and road-work in Canada
by Daniel Fowler


When a township in Canada is surveyed and prepared for settlement, it is laid out in “concessions,” or strips of not less than a mile in width. Two concessions being thrown back to back, the front of each is, or is to be, accessible by a road; so that the township is crossed and recrossed by parallel roads, two miles apart. These are connected by other roads, running at right angles to them, also two miles apart, called forty-foot roads, a term which explains itself.

The land is thus divided into regular square blocks, which are subdivided into twelve plots, each containing one hundred acres. These plots are a mile long and one-sixth of a mile wide, and have each a frontage upon a road to the latter extent. They are numbered in the survey from one upwards, in the first, second, or third concession, and so on, and are then ready for purchase and settlement.

No more departure is made from this plan than convenience or necessity may dictate. When the boundary-line of a township is irregular, from its geographical conformation, a straight line is struck, and the “broken front” is parcelled out according to circumstances.

All this is shown upon the map, but very little is done in reality. The lines are slightly marked by a cutting away of the trees and brushwood, for the convenience of the survey; but these soon grow up again, thicker than ever. Rude boundary-posts are set up: very hard to find. The trees are “blazed,” at intervals;—that is, a portion of the bark is scored or pared off, so that it gleams white for a time, and the scar remains.

All is yet silent, desolate, unbroken forest. Any idea of straight boundary-lines is confounded and lost in the irregularities of the surface, swamps, and a maze of timber. None but an experienced backwoodsman could hope to unravel their seeming tangle. Nothing could be imagined more confusing. Settlers are lost in the woods within a quarter of a mile of their shanty, in the very spot which becomes, before long, one of the fields surrounding their dwelling.

Tracks of the rudest kind are slowly pushed through this wilderness—perhaps, or perhaps not, in the direction indicated by the survey. The imperious necessities of the backwoodsman set at nought all paper limits. When he may have to carry on his back, or drag on a hand sleigh, for twenty miles, a single bag of wheat to be ground, he is not very nice about the road he takes, so that it is the easiest he can find. In course of time the cattle play their part. They strike out a course for themselves, and follow it until it becomes a beaten path. From this cause it arose, says the erudite Knickerbocker, that the streets of old New York were so crooked, being originally built along the cattle-tracks.

But roads, practicable for an ox-sled at least, must be made before long. Trees must be cut down; logs rolled out of the way; here and there even a stump removed. Across the swamps “corduroy” bridges, or causeways of logs, must be laid. And woe betide the adventurous traveller who may attempt to force his way into such a fastness, in a wheeled vehicle. These corduroys will dislocate every bone in his body for him. They will be “clayed” after a while, but labour is awanting as yet, and the net-work of roots makes the road, for a time, almost impassable except on foot.

Such is, and such may readily be understood to be, the rude beginning of roads in a new country.

Bit by bit, matters mend. One settler, by opening up a possibility of getting at his own lot, helps a neighbour to reach his. Inhabitants multiply; more assistance is obtainable; a gradual and never-ceasing process goes on; stumps and roots rot out; ditches nan be dug, to drain off the water, and the excavated earth can be thrown up upon the road to raise and shape it. After a while, gravel, or even broken stone, may be added, and lo! a Queen’s highway, upon which you may bowl along at seven or eight miles an hour. Some of the roads in the township in which I live are of the latter class; others, which have certainly been opened for thirty years or more, are yet scarcely passable at certain seasons.

In the making and repairing of roads in Canada, tithe is taken in kind. Every man is rated, not for so much money, but for so many days’ work, in proportion to the amount of his assessment. Every adult, not assessed at all, or not at a higher rate than two days, must furnish two days’ work. The shoemaker must go ultra crepidam for once; the tailor must straighten his legs and descend from his perch; even the schoolmaster must leave his blackboard a carte noire, and dismiss his urchins to their own devices. Of course they may act by substitute, if they can or choose to do so; or they may compound with the pathmaster, at the rate of half a dollar a day. All these outsiders murmur; but with only a show of reason. Good roads are for the advantage of the community at large, and, if these persons have no vehicles, they benefit indirectly. Perhaps it comes rather hard upon the hired labourer, who has to forfeit two days’ wages.

In the infancy of the colony this method of proceeding was, and in the rude settlements of the backwoods still is, the best plan that could be pursued. Money is a scarce article. The kind of work to be performed is very rough, and the mutual assistance of a gang of men working together is frequently necessary, as in the removal of large trees, rocks, or the like. Besides, the machinery for having the labour performed by contract for money is not yet in good working order.

But, in the old-settled districts of the country, it is about the very worst plan that could be devised. Whether the roads are good or bad, whether much labour is required or little, the same number of days’ work must be exacted and must be “put in” somehow. It happens, too, that the disinterestedness of human nature, so universally displayed on all other occasions, suffers an eclipse in this instance. Men have no objection to see their neighbours working hard at a road for them to travel on, but have no idea of labouring themselves for their neighbours’ convenience. It seems to be something like those donkey-races, in which every man rides somebody else’s donkey, and the last in, wins.

The pathmaster, who is annually nominated by the township council, has it at his own option to appoint the time at which the work shall be performed, under his own personal superintendence and responsibility. But custom fixes the period within the month of June. It is a “slack” time then, and it suits the convenience of all alike. The roads also are, at that time, in good condition for working upon.

Having made up his mind, the pathmaster goes round “warning out” for a certain time and place. The hours of work are from eight o’clock till twelve, and from one till live. A sleigh, cart, waggon, or plough, with horses, counts for one day, but no more. Still there is always a jockeying for whose horses shall be employed; the driver can take it easy. But, “Oh, come,” I think I hear some one say, “I can understand a cart or a sledge, but what can a plough have to do, mending roads?” Plenty, my dear doubter; it is in constant request. By its means the ditches at the sides of the roads are deepened, widened, and cleared out. That is to say, the soil is loosened, furrow by furrow, so that it can be more easily thrown out upon the middle of the road, to round it up, by shovel or by hand. By hand? Yes; for in dry weather the clods are turned up, sometimes, not “as big as your head,” but about as big as a bushel-basket. It may readily be imagined what sort of road this must make, until it becomes, by slow degrees, ground and pounded down. The striking out of a footpath across a newly-ploughed field may give some remote approach to it. Nevertheless, this is the only way in which it can be done, and the result comes out right at last. The operation is called “turn-piking.” It is rather curious that by this term the Canadians mean the road itself, and the English the toll-gates upon it. It is a queer word, and the unde derivatur might be worth hunting up.

Having mentioned a footpath, I must not leave unsaid that that charming feature of the English landscape, so characteristic of that country almost alone amongst all others,—that inestimable boon to the pedestrian and the lover of nature, winding through fields and woods, over stiles, and across streams, shortening and relieving the way, and unveiling scenes of the most exquisite beauty: dust and traffic left behind—does not exist throughout the length and breadth of Canada. The wayfarer must reach his point by a right angle, or a series of right angles; along straight roads, hideous with snake-fences and foul with frouzy weeds. Rather a harsh picture, perhaps. But I am very much afraid that, in the main, it will not admit of much mitigation. Oh, if only for once, for a breezy common, lovely with heath and gorse and broom, or a hollow country lane, lying deep between old sandstone quarries!

The men having assembled, under the pathmaster’s direction, at the trysting-place, there ensues a general languor and laziness after the march; a skirmishing for the easiest places; and a grand demonstration of shirking all along the line. They are distributed here and there, but it is not in the power of even a pathmaster, though clothed in the majesty of authority, to be in more than one place at a time; and, where he is not, then there is sure to be a solemn palaver and a smoking of the calumet of peace—and idleness, or idleset, as it is called in these polite circles. When, in his rounds, he flushes one covey, another is sure to settle down in the place he has left. And so it goes on—a playful see saw of evasion. The pathmaster, in virtue of his office, is exempt from work himself, but he is by far the hardest-worked man on the ground, for all that.

It is common to carry gravel from any place where it can be got to any other where it is wanted. Half a dozen men will be shovelling into a waggon the smallest load with which the remnant of shame that may remain to the driver will permit him to start. But he has so ingeniously accommodated his waggon-bottom and side-boards (the latter probably about three or four inches high), that he contrives to sprinkle the road with the gravel all the way as he goes along, at funeral pace, and to arrive at his destination with not much left. Here are congregated the elders and quidnuncs of the society, each provided with a hoe, and these men set a vigorous example to the juniors by scraping the gravel out of the waggon and spreading it a little more, after they have got it down, with long intervals of inaction between. The great skill of this department of the works seems to consist in resting the elbows or chin upon the hoe-handle, and working out the connection between gravelling the roads and the gossip of the country-side.

In short, so many days, not so much work, have to be “put in.” That problem solved, the conclave breaks up, having spread over four or five days (each household having two, or three, or more hands upon the ground) as much work as could readily have been performed in one.

But, with all its charms of easy leisure, it is not exactly the occupation which a man of any education or refinement would engage in by choice. It is not the most agreeable thing in the world if a knot of gay city acquaintances should happen to come along the road, and catch the country mouse in the act of heaving up clods with his hands out of a ditch, in his shirt-sleeves; perhaps but little distinguished in dress or appearance from the motley mob similarly engaged. The best escape out of such a contrétemps is by an impromptu exhibition of that facile, happy-go-lucky throw-off which those men generally most possess, who have least of anything else. Soon after I came to the colony I was introduced, at the house of a friend, to two young men who had lately emigrated like myself. They were gentlemen by birth, education, manners, association,—by everything, in short, except pocket. Driving home one afternoon with my wife, I came upon these young men in just such a predicament as I have attempted to describe. I had still clinging about me the traditions of the old country, and had not yet learned the golden Canadian lesson, that a man cannot degrade himself by any act that is not in itself discreditable. Would to Heaven that the converse of the maxim held good here also, that every dishonest and disreputable act were visited with the disgrace it deserves! There is not the most distant approach to it. In that respect, Canadian society is rotten to its very inmost core.

To return to the subject from which I have been led away for an instant, fruitlessly, hopelessly led away. I smile now when I remember that when I lived in England there was a garden-door which opened through a wall upon the village street, and that when I had occasion to extend my garden-work outside that door, I used to do it in the twilight, so as not to be remarked or remarked upon. I should have as much thought of working upon the roads, when I first came to Canada, as of throwing myself into the lake. When I caught sight of those young men working on the roads among a miscellaneous lot of common-looking people, a sensation of awkwardness came over me on their account. I manœuvred so as to appear not to see them, with the best possible intentions at the time towards their feelings. But I do not now think that I was right. I think now that it was squeamish. I should not do so to-day. Besides, I laid myself open to the suspicion of incivility, or of entertaining feelings directly contrary to those by which I was in reality actuated. No, there is a happy mean, if one could hit it, but it requires good shooting.

The truth is, that in matters of this kind in Canada, we simply please ourselves. We go about our own business in our own way, without much regard for Mrs. Grundy, who suffers not exactly a sea-change, but a freshwater one; the air of the lakes does not agree with her. On my first arrival in the province, I took a trip through the west, to see how the land lay. I was a genuine Johnny Raw, staring at everything that was new to me, and everything was new to me then. I had brought a letter of introduction to an old settler, and he was showing me the lions. We met, coming along the road, two persons, each driving a load of lime. The foremost pulled up. He was a man of education and breeding; the first half dozen words he uttered spoke for themselves. I was puzzled. His clothes were shabby and dusty; he wore an undeniable common red flannel shirt, and he had not shaved that morning. The other man was evidently a mere working-man, yet their occupation was the same. But pray do not picture them to yourself as stalking along at about a mile and a half an hour, in smock-frocks and ankle-jacks; brandishing preposterous whips, almost as long as South African ones; bawling some outlandish gibberish to three or four immense brutes, all in a row. That may do in Sussex, but it will not do here. No, they were sitting in the waggons, on seats ingeniously raised above the load, on wooden springs; driving with reins two “span” of smart little roadsters, able to do their five miles an hour with the lime behind them, in light handy waggons. That certainly takes the edge off the rusticity of the position. When we had separated, Mr. —— said to me, “That is our clergyman.”

“Church of England?” I asked.


“And the other man is his servant?”

“Yes, his hired servant.”

Johnny Raw set all that down in his diary. Now he almost doubts whether it is worth the relating.

One great peculiarity about Canada is, that for three or four months out of the year the climate makes our roads for us. Then we discard wheels and slide along on skates. It is a moot point whether the pathmaster’s jurisdiction extends into that wintry province. There is a perpetual schism between those who hold that he has a right to call out the men to “bush” roads across the ice, or to break a track through heavy drifts, and those who contest that doctrine. These last say that such work is thrown away; that there is nothing to show for it; that, if people want the roads broken, they may turn out and do it. No doubt they may. I am an old Canadian, but it is a point upon which I can give no decision.