Explore Ontario's historic roads, each with unexpected side trips and a fascinating story.
In his relentless quest for the unusual in a world of the mundane, modern-day explorer Ron Brown has traveled nearly every backroad in Ontario. This guidebook features 22 trips, each illustrated with photographs and accompanied by an easy-to-follow map.
These trips range in length from afternoon outings to weekend excursions. And all lead to fascinating out-of-the-way places within easy driving distance of major cities in Ontario.
Backroads of Ontario features:
This completely revised and updated edition mixes new information with the old, including new attractions and new information on existing attractions as well as the most current routes and directions. It reveals an Ontario many of us scarcely know exists.
An authority on rural Ontario, Ron Brown has written over a dozen books on Ontario's ghost towns and roadside attractions. The recently published third edition of his popular Top 115 Unusual Things to See in Ontario was featured in Canadian Geographic's online travel newsletter. Ron is a frequent contributor to CBC Radio, and his travel articles have appeared in numerous North American newspapers and magazines. He lives in Toronto.
Introduction: The Story of Ontario's Backroads
The road was scarcely passable; there were no longer cheerful farms and clearings, but the dark pine forest and the rank swamp crossed by those terrific corduroy paths (my bones ache at the mere recollection) and deep holes and pools of rotted vegetable matter mixed with water, black bottomless sloughs of despond! The very horses paused on the brink of some of these mud gulfs and trembled ere they made the plunge downwards. I set my teeth, screwed myself to my seat and commended myself to heaven.
Today's backroad adventures are a far cry from 1837, when traveller Anna Jameson wrote the above words. Indeed, those who flee the hustle of freeways and the tedium of suburban sprawl to seek the tranquillity of an uncluttered countryside have made backroad driving North America's most popular outdoor activity.
This book leads you from Ontario's main highways onto its backroads. Before 1939 the province had no expressways. That was the year King George VI and Queen Elizabeth opened the Queen Elizabeth Way. In 1929 Ontario had less than 2,000 km of hard-surface highway. Before 1789 it had no roads at all. European settlement of Ontario began with the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists from the war-torn colonies that had become the United States of America. The Loyalists settled the shorelines of the St. Lawrence River, of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and they had no need of roads. But the governor of the day, John Graves Simcoe, casting a wary eye to the restless neighbour to the south, embarked upon the building of military roads. In 1793 he ordered a road from Montreal to Kingston, and Ontario soon had its first road. (You can follow it even today as County Road 18 through Glengarry County.) This he followed with Yonge Street and Dundas Street, which also survive and have retained their names.
Despite the slow pace of settlement through the early years of the nineteenth century, the pattern of Ontario's road system was taking shape. From the Loyalist ports roads led inland to bring out lumber and farm products. They were useless quagmires in spring and little better in summer. Only in winter, when frost and snow combined to create a surface that was hard and smooth, did farmers haul their wheat to port.
Settlement roads connected the main towns of the day. Among the more important were the Danforth Road, replaced soon after by the Kingston Road (portions of both survive), linking York (now Toronto) with Kingston, the Talbot Trail that followed the shores of Lake Erie, and roads to the northwest, such as the Garafraxa Road, the Sydenham Road and Hurontario Street.
As settlement progressed, surveyors made their way through the forests, laying out townships and surveying each into a rigid grid of farm lots and concessions. Along each concession they set aside a road allowance, linked at intervals of 2 to 5 km by side roads. And so Ontario's road network became a checkerboard that paid no attention to mountains, lakes and swamps.
One of the first problems was that there was no one to build the roads. Although each settler was required to spend twelve days a year on road labour, settlers were few and far between at first.
In the 1840s the government turned road-building over to private companies and to municipalities. Some or the companies tried such improvements as macadam and planks. But rather than being grades of crushed stone, the macadam was often little more than scattered boulders, while the planks rotted after a few years. When the railways burst upon the scene in the 1850s, road companies and municipalities both turned their energies to railway-building.
Despite the railways, the government tried one more road-building venture, the colonization road scheme. This was in the 1850s, when lumber companies were anxious to harvest the pine forests that cloaked the highlands between the Ottawa River and Georgian Bay. Although early surveyors had dismissed the agricultural potential of the upland of rock and swamp, the government touted the region as a Utopia for land-hungry settlers. What the politicians didn't reveal was that the main aim of the scheme was to provide labour, horses and food for the timber companies. Once the forests were razed and the timber companies had gone, the settlers who had moved to the area were left to starve. By 1890 most of them had fled and the roads in some cases were totally abandoned. Nevertheless, a few of them retain their pioneer appearance and have become some of the backroads in this book.
In 1894 the Ontario Good Roads Association was formed to lobby for better roads, and in 1901 the government passed the Highway Improvement Act to subsidize county roads. Finally, in 1915, the government got back into the business of road-building and created the Department of Highways. The first 60 km of provincial road was assumed east of Toronto in 1917.
But for decades after this, northern Ontario remained railway country. Most towns and villages north of the French River owed their existence to the railways, and what roads there were stabbed out from the railway lines to the lumber and mining camps.
The years following the Second World War saw the arrival of the auto age, and during the 1950s and 1960s Ontario embarked on a spate of road improvements unequalled in the entire previous two centuries. Road-building continues unabated, and as it does it destroys much of Ontario's traditional landscape. Rows of maple and elm, cedar rail fences and roadside buildings have fallen before the bulldozer, and Ontario was suddenly left with a legacy of endless asphalt. Despite enlightened planning, countryside sprawl continues to engulf Ontario's once pastoral landscapes. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ontarians, overwhelmed with the tedium of an omnipresent suburbia, are travelling further afield to seek the tranquillity of backroad Ontario.
The backroads in this book are special. Each has a story of its own. Some follow the unhappy colonization roads, some the more prosperous settlement roads, some explore rural areas that have retained their century-old landscapes, others follow the shores of lakes or rivers. Some plunge into deep valleys and mount soaring plateaus. Others take you into northern Ontario to logging areas old and new, to once booming silver fields and to the fringes of the province's last frontiers.
Although the maps that guide you through each chapter contain basic information, you will also need to bring along more detailed road maps, or a quality GPS device. And don't overlook the driving and walking tours offered by many local counties and municipalities.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Story of Ontario's Backroads
Section 1: Southwestern Ontario
Section 2: Central Ontario
Section 3: Eastern Ontario
Section 4: Northern Ontario
Index of Cities, Towns, Villages and Hamlets Index Photo Credits