It’s a great to be invited on the Dave Nemo show again. Next time will be on Canadian Thanksgiving (Columbus Day in the US) 10 AM EST on Monday, October 12. Dave does a regular show for truckers on XM Sirius satellite, somewhere on the dial, I’ve never experienced the world of satellite radio, but I know it’s big with many drivers. Anyway, if you can’t get home for turkey and pumpkin pie Monday, tune in and you can hear about some Canadian trucking history—we’re just starting World War I.
Radio’s a new medium for me. As opposed to sitting down at my trusty ‘puter, a radio interview requires some quick mental footwork. A couple of times I was caught flat-footed when Dave asked me something.
Did you know, for instance, that the first driver shortage in Canada occurred in 1856? True fact. At the heart of this story is the great figure of William Hendrie. Born in 1831 in Glasgow and started his career at 17 with the Glasgow and Southern Railway. Working his way up, he was offered a job with the Great Western Railway (predecessor of CN Rail) and in 1855 moved to Hamilton, Ont.
Within a year, he and his partner John Shedden, had a monopoly on the cartage service for Great Western. He’s credited with developing the straight through bill of lading. Before that time, draymen would try to collect monies or bring back signed notes, but there was no system in place causing great difficulties for the railway to collect freight charges. Hendrie would have the drivers get a standard bill of lading signed and collect money owed. The railway did not have to worry about collecting, delivery of goods or warehousing–Hendrie took care of all that—they simply paid out a percentage for cartage fees. Sounds like modern day logistics, doesn’t it?
Hence, within a year, and still only a young lad of 25, he and his partner were offered all the cartage for Great Western Railway from Detroit to Montreal to Buffalo, a sweet deal, but one that caused consternation among the teamsters in Montreal. I’m using teamster here in the true sense, one who can handle a “team” of horses. The teamsters in Montreal rioted a couple of times, set fire to Hendrie’s freight sheds and threatened the lives of Hendrie and Shedden.
With all the new business Hendrie faced a driver shortage and sent his foreman down to meet the trains as new immigrants were arriving in Toronto. Any Scot that spoke with a brogue was offered a job. In 1858 Hendrie and Shedden split the business down the midde of Toronto—Shedden taking everything on the east side of Yonge Street all the way to Montreal, while Hendrie took everything going west to and from Detroit.
Hendrie became a great horse breeder as well, for both cartage horses and thoroughbreds. Hendrie Cartage did about 150 years of business with CN Rail . The company was a small empire and tops at machinery moving among other things in its time. It’s survived by some remnants: Provincial Trailer Rentals, PTR, can trace its lineage back to William Hendrie.
The Scots’ connection to trucking in Ontario is palpable. Just look at the names of the big family companies: MacKinnon, Mackie, McKevitt, Walker, Muir. I’m sure I’m missing a few.
My friend David Logan started as a teamster for Dominion Cartage in 1935 and switched to a Mack truck the next year when he got a job with Hendrie. The Mack’s engine was water-cooled and the company gave him old horse blankets to put over the hood while he was making deliveries in Toronto. “I couldn’t get away from horses. But I liked the smell of them.,” he told me at one time. Last I heard he was in Baycrest Centre getting care and I wish him well. At one time David looked after all the machinery moving Hendrie did in the province. “I knew every low bridge between Toronto and Montreal.” And he was instrumental in getting much of Ontario’s infrastructure in place, bridges and the like, during the formative years after WW II.
Here’s some more cool stuff on horses and early trucking from my research. Note that freight rate cutting was happening on the Caribo trail in the 1860s, as were double freight wagons, predecessors of LCVs. The more things change…
At the end of the 18th Century, there was at least one good roadway that served as a portage around Niagara Falls. This was an original Native trade route that had been improved and widened by soldiers and traders. Up to 50 large wagons a day rolled from Queenston to Chippewa and some travelled further to Fort Erie. These were large carts that were usually pulled by four or more oxen. They carried rum and other trade goods upstream to Lake Erie, and furs towards Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence.
Oxen were as common as horses at the beginning of the 19th century. Although slow, the ox was very strong and would not get stuck easily. Teams of oxen and horses were also essential for the construction of roads as well as the movement of goods. Along with the animals came their handler—the teamster (one who could handle a team).
Teamsters quickly assumed an important role in pioneer Canada, operating for-hire wagons and cartage services. Today’s truck drivers are direct descendants of these early haulers. Most of the first teamsters were owner-operators—they owned their own cart and horses, but the distinction must have soon arisen between owners and hired drivers.
These first Canadian drivers were tough. Their wagons were crudely adapted farm carts that rattled and swayed—open boxes with primitive suspensions, or clumsy carriages that hung on leather straps. The vehicles rolled on wooden wheels with iron rims and made a great deal of noise. The axles had to be frequently greased, which would be done with a bucket of grease and a long pole. The driver sat perched on a plank suspended between two poles or walked alongside.
Canadian historian, Edwin Guillet writes admiringly of these teamsters: “The very nature of the business required men inured to every hardship and equal to any emergency. And if one of them failed to negotiate the terror of drivers—Herriman Hill between Colborne and Grafton—or some of the other innumerable hazards…little blame could be attached to anyone except those responsible for the intolerable roads.”
John McDonald documented the hardships of wagon travel in 1821. He accompanied a group of homesteaders from Brockville to a settlement near Perth, Ont. Some of the wagons were upset along the way. “One boy was killed on the spot, several were very much hurt,” McDonald writes. “One man got his arm broken, and our own wagoner, in spite all of his care and skill, was baffled, his horse having laired in a miry part of the road where he stuck fast.”
A winter sled-route between Kingston and Toronto was established in 1817, and year-round stagecoach operation followed about ten years later. By 1842, the stagecoach era was in full swing with lines running across Ontario and Quebec. They hauled mail and passengers and some amount of cargo. But the coming of the railroads in the 1850s meant that the coaches were doomed. By 1870 most of the stagecoach operations across the provinces had been abandoned.
Road networks were slower to develop on the prairies. Early overland travel took place on trails. Metis cart trains, comprised of oxen, mules or horses pulling large-wheeled Red River carts or wagons, were operating between points in Manitoba and St. Paul, Minnesota as early as 1840. By 1870 a well-worn cart trail ran northwest between Winnipeg and Edmonton.
In the 1880s a good wagon could be purchased in Winnipeg for $175 and a Red River cart could be had for $20, but overland freight rates were prohibitively expensive. In 1882 it cost $168 to ship 100 pounds the 460 miles between St. Paul and Fort Garry (Winnipeg). The coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881 made many of the cart routes obsolete but the problem remained in getting from the rail station to one’s land.
British Columbia’s first road was built by sailors from the Royal Navy in 1854. It ran from Esquimalt to Victoria. The discovery of gold at Hope a few years later brought a flood of people into the Thompson and Fraser River valleys. This necessitated the building of a wagon road through the mountains to service the newly established towns.
The Cariboo Road was started in 1862 and completed in three years. It was an engineering marvel of its time, eventually running 650 km along the Fraser River from Yale to Barkerville. The road was built by out-of-work miners under the supervision of Royal Engineers and private contractors at a cost of $2 million. They blasted through mountains and slung trestles and suspensions bridges across near-impossible terrain.
Today, the Trans-Canada Highway follows much of this early route. The Cariboo Road became an essential link to the interior gold fields of British Columbia and the settlers in the region. Freight would travel by steamship to Yale on the Fraser River, where packhorses, mules and freight wagons (one or two wagons coupled together) pulled by a teams of 4 to 12 horses, or up to 18 oxen, would then take the cargo inland and distribute it. Even with the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Ashcroft in 1885, freight wagons were the main means of transport to interior mountain villages like Lillooet and Barkerville.
The Ashcroft Journal reported that in the month of June, 1895, there were about 100 wagon trains on the Cariboo Road, as well as 400 pack animals–about 1,000 animals altogether. The wagons and pack animals carried groceries and supplies upwards and gold on the return leg. Horse and oxen drawn freight wagons could take 3-4 weeks to get to their destination, or sometimes up to twelve weeks in bad weather, while a fast-moving stage could cover the distance from Ashcroft to Barkerville in four days with stops at mile houses during the night.
The mountain teamsters, like today’s truckers, faced a competitive marketplace. The standard freight rate was just 2 ½ cents per pound, but some of the operators cut the rate when freight was scarce. As well, the drivers had to pay $150 for a ton of hay to feed their animals in the upper mountains and some of the innkeepers of the mile houses were unwilling to let the drivers run a tab. In the last years of the horse-drawn freighters, the Cariboo Teamsters Union was created to set fixed rates, just as trucks began to appearing in the mountains. These teamsters were forced to make the transition to motor freight drivers, swapping reins for steering wheels. The steep grades made the horse drawn freight wagon obsolete. By 1913 the last horse-drawn freight wagon was gone from the Cariboo Trail.
But horses continued to work alongside trucks for many more decades in the rest of Canada. Road builders used teams of horses well into the 1930s. National Cartage of Winnipeg only switched their horse-drawn vehicles to Ford trucks in 1933, while Buckley Cartage of Toronto remained faithful to their Clydesdale-pulled wagons well into the 1940s. Dairies were among the last to abandon their animals. Most city dairies had replaced their stables of horses with trucks by the mid-1950s.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs