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Stamp Stories

The Trans Canada Highway

In Episode 26, we learn about the history of the Trans Canada highway, the second longest national highway in the world, and the stamps that celebrate it.

Originally this episode aired October 27th 2019.

To begin the story of a highway we start with a very brief history of the Automobile in Canada.

The first Canadian automobile, built in 1867 by Henry Seth Taylor, was regarded as a novelty, as were the single-cylinder vehicles that were eventually imported from the US around the turn of the century. It was really in the 20th century the car came into its own and specifically for our subject matter today the idea of the cross country travel by car.

The first North American coast to coast trip was in the United States, in 1903 and interestingly enough by Toronto born Horatio Nelson Jackson. He and his driving partner Sewall K. Crocker in 1903, became the first people to drive an automobile across the United States.

It actually all came from a bet — strange as it were. Horatio Nelson Jackson was an auto enthusiast who differed with the then-prevailing wisdom that the automobile was a passing fad and a simple recreational plaything. While in San Francisco’s University Club as a guest on May 18, 1903, he agreed to a $50 wager (equivalent to just shy of $1,400 USD in 2019) to prove that a four-wheeled machine could be driven across the country. He accepted even though he did not own a car, had little experience driving, and had no maps to follow.

Jackson at the time lived in Vermont but while visiting in San Francisco he had been taking driving lessons. However, because of his lack of mechanical experience, Horatio Nelson Jackson convinced a young mechanic, Sewall K. Crocker, to serve as his travel companion, mechanic, and backup driver.

He bought a slightly used, two-cylinder, 20 horse power Winton, which he named the Vermont, after his home state. He would leave San Francisco on May 23 and arrive in New York City on July 26, 1903. The trip took him 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes and required over 3,000 litres of gasoline.

The year 1903 was another milestone for cars in Canada.

It was in 1903 that Twenty-seven motorists gather at Queen’s Park to form the Toronto Automobile Club — which would eventually become the basis of the CAA. These were founding members of Canada’s first advocacy group for motorists. Their first president Dr. Perry E. Doolittle would become an important voice in the push for a Trans Canada highway.

Also in 1903, the Ford Motor Company was founded and only one year later, Ford Motor Company of Canada Ltd. was founded on August 17, 1904. The purpose of this division was the manufacturing and selling Ford automobiles in Canada and throughout the British Empire. It was originally located in Walkerville, Ontario (now part of Windsor, Ontario) and it was founded by Gordon McGregor, convinced a group of investors to invest in Henry Ford’s new automobile which was being produced across the river in Detroit.

This rapidly moved from there, and by 1906 Ford Motor Company became America’s largest car manufacturer producing over 8,700 cars. In 1908 Ford introduced what would become one of the most popular cars of all time, Model T. That same year, in 1908 William C. Durant would form General Motors….we’ll now leave the history of auto companies for another day and turn back again to the Canadian interest in the automobile at the time.

As mentioned earlier, the idea of cross country travel was always something popular from the early days of the automobile. In Canada it was no different. As a matter of fact in 1912, Albert E. Todd ( who would later be the mayor of Victoria, BC from 1917–1919) had a gold medal struck, to be offered as a prize for the first car to drive from Nova Scotia across all of Canada to the Pacific, entirely on Canadian roads.

In 1912, there was also a meeting of automobile enthusiasts in Port Alberni. The Malahat Highway from Victoria had just been opened and this was as far west as anyone could drive in Canada.

Speeches were made then by various politicians and auto enthusiasts, and a highway was called for that would link the country by road instead of just rail. There were only 50,000 licensed cars in Canada at the time, but the number was growing rapidly and the motorists could see the future.

On that day, May 4, a signpost was constructed and planted at the end of the road in Alberni; it read simply “CANADIAN HIGHWAY” and an arrow pointed east, back down the road. Some of those in attendance, including Albert Todd, the creator of the Todd Medal.

The thought was it wouldn’t take long for someone to take the medal as many predicted the Trans-Canada would be built within five years.

Only three months after Todd announced the medal, Thomas Wilby and Jack Haney on Aug. 27, 1912, set out to become the first motorists to cross Canada. This was quite a feat, considering that there were only 16 kilometres of paved road in the entire country.

The Thomas and Jack crossed the country from Halifax to Victoria over 6,800 kilometres in 52 days. However, they failed to win the Todd medal. There were simply some stretches of the travel where no cleared roads existed for which they could travel on. Several times in northern Ontario where there were no roads they were forced to load the car onto a train, and they ferried it across Lake Superior on a schooner. In British Columbia, they ran out of road and had to detour through Washington State for 135 km. Even though they took a detour, and didn’t win the medal, their arrival was celebrated in Vancouver, Victoria and Alberni by the Highway Association.

The popularity of the automobile in Canada grew and between 1918 and 1923, Canada became the world’s second largest vehicle producer and a major exporter of automobiles and auto parts.

Also during this time the number of motor cars in Canada increased to 200,000, and in 1919, the Canada Highways Act was passed. Its aimed to stimulate road construction and encourage uniformity of road standards. However, things were far from a promised Trans Canadian highway.

In 1920, Dr. Perry Doolittle was elected the first president of the CAA (Canadian Automobile Association) and would hold that office until his death in 1933.

However, before he would pass on he mounted a vigorous campaign to expand Canada’s highways. In 1922, for example, the CAA would collectively urge the federal government to build a Trans-Canada Highway.

In 1925, inventor, physician and car advocate, Dr. Perry Doolittle, would embark on a highly publicized Trans Canadian adventure by car. He would, in fact, become the first person to drive a car from ocean to ocean staying within Canada.

As mentioned, he made it a big publicity event as Dr. Perry Doolittle did the cross country trek with filmmaker Ed Flickenger — who recorded the trip for all to see.

They would drive a donated Model T Ford and to solve the problem of there being no roads in certain remote areas, they simply drove along the existing railway tracks. They did this by swapping the car’s rubber-tired wheels for ones of flanged steel and, with the permission of Canadian Pacific, drove on the tracks across the swamps of northern Ontario and through the most challenging mountains of the Rockies. It would take them a total of 39 days to make the trek.

Now if you recall, that 1912 Todd Medal is still out there, for anyone who complete that cross Canadian trek by car. However, he too could not claim the Todd medal, because the railway was not considered a Canadian road, which was a requirement for the prize to be claimed.

There was a different prize for Dr Doolitte though. He got a serious conversation started. Everyone seemingly agreed a national highway made sense, but the responsibility of actually building a truly Trans-Canada road fell to the provinces, not the federal government. Furthermore, no one seem to agree on how the costs should be shared among the different levels of government, or what routes should be taken especially when considering the immense challenge of the Rockies and the Ontario swamps.

It would take the great depression for progress to be made. With the Unemployment Relief Act of 1930 the federal government granted over $19 million (365 million CAD in 2019 dollars) to the provinces for construction of sections of a Trans-Canada Highway. Between 1930 and 1937, lots of work was done including a huge project in British Columbia.

Jointly funded by the provincial and federal governments during the great depression, the Big Bend Highway was completed as part of the Central Trans-Provincial Highway. The route followed the Columbia River between Revelstoke and Golden through the Selkirk Mountains. The completion of this stretch of highway, in 1940, finally linked Alberta to the Pacific, but it was unpaved, treacherous and closed during the winter. This is a situation that would be addressed in later years, but for now in the summer there was a route, and the winter travellers could use a car shuttle train.

During World War II, there were also strategic roads that would be built in Canada. The Alaska Highway, for example was built in 1942 to connect isolated Alaska with Edmonton, Alberta. This was critical to help defend America’s northern outpost against a threat of Japanese invasion. While the United States bore the full cost of construction, the road and other facilities in Canada was agreed to be turned over to Canadian authorities after the war ended.

In Ontario, big strides were made too, with the last missing stretch of gravel was completed between Hearst and Geraldton in 1943. We also encounter what will become something common as we continue this history of the Trans Canada highway an announcement was made on June 12, 1943 that the “Trans Canada Highway” was open. The reality is three-quarters of the Canadian highway system was unpaved, dirt roads, with very little consistency province to province.

Also during WorldWar II, gas was rationed, so taking advantage of these new roads, no matter their state would have to wait — especially with the Todd Medal from 1912, still not claimed.

Eventually, in 1946, after the war, Alex Macfarlane, a retired brigadier from Winnipeg decided to take the challenge to make the coast to coast trek.

Macfarlane was a larger-than-life character who made and lost two fortunes before finding success in the textile industry. He was also a born salesman and negotiator, and he persuaded Chevrolet to give him a new Stylemaster sedan for the epic drive.

He and his friend Kenneth MacGillivray, who navigated but never took the wheel, crossed the country from Louisbourg, N.S. to Victoria in just nine days, about 30 days less than the trip Dr Perry Doolittle has made just 20 years earlier. Macfarlane faced few problems outside of the elements of rain and snow — but he was able to complete his trip all on Canadian roads.

When he made it to the west coast, Macfarlane was announced the winner of The Todd Medal and it was presented to him at a dinner in Victoria. However, it was not presented by Albert Todd himself — he had died 18 years earlier.

With World War II over, Canada, like the USA was entering a period of prosperity. Unemployment and inflation were low, and there was no need for public works projects like the ones from the depression that helped build the initial pass of the roads across the country.

Nonetheless, there was an understanding that a proper Highway needed to be passed by some in government. In 1948, there was a conference around the highways as this CBC report notes.

A year later in December, 1949, the Trans-Canada Highway Act was passed through Parliament, right after Newfoundland joined Canada. It became more important then ever to connect all the provinces together by highway,

This act committed the federal government to paying half the estimated $300 million cost of building the highway and the provinces would pay the rest. The goal was to have the highway completed by 1956.

However, as everyone knows when it comes to these big projects with governments, costs soared and deadlines were missed as the real challenge of permanent construction made itself clear.

By 1956, the federal and provincial government came to a cost-sharing agreement to encourage the provinces to upgrade existing roadways to “Trans-Canada” standards, and receive 90% of the cost of building new stretches to fill gaps in the roadway.

To qualify as Trans-Canada Highway, the paved road must be at least 6.7 m wide with unpaved shoulders of at least another 3.3 m on either side. Hills cannot exceed six degrees of slope angle, and drivers must always be able to see at least 183 m down the road ahead. It would take until 1971 for the full length of Trans Canada to be completed to this standard.

Nonetheless, with this new agreement in 1956, the work continued on the most difficult sections and a new goal was set to connect all 10 provinces by paved road by 1967, Canada’s centennial year.

The two sections of the Trans Canada highway that created the greatest difficulty were alongside Lake Superior between Sault Ste Marie, a gap of 265 km, and a 147 km section over the Roger’s Pass between Revelstoke and Golden in BC.

In Ontario, there were challenges of swaps and they needed to have a right of way cleared through virgin forest for 157 of the 265 km. They also need to build 25 bridges. With the federal funding, though that stretch was officially opened in September 1960.

The other difficult challenges were in BC. They abandoned the Big Bend Highway entirely for a more direct route through the Rogers Pass. The Rogers Pass route followed some of the early tracks of the trans-continental railway. To avoid the snow issues that closed Big Bend, they build a number of snow sheds and earth dams to protect the highway from winter avalanches and rockslides. This is crucial because the area gets about 60 metres of snowfall each year.

The Roger Pass route was opened in July 1962. This completion marked the official opening of The Trans-Canada Highway.

Typical of Canadian provincial/federal relations, there was disagreement on celebrations on the official opening. Premier W.A.C. Bennett of British Columbia declared the road open at a ceremony on July 31 without once mentioning Canada.

On Sept. 3, Prime Minister of Canada, John Diefenbaker, declared the highway open at an official ceremony art Rogers Pass route, filling in a final patch.

Let’s listen in to the coverage from CBC at the time

Even with this so-called “official opening” and all the pageantry involved, the work was not really done yet.

BC continued work to improve the highway through the canyon along the Fraser River by blasting several tunnels, with the final two opening in 1966.

Newfoundland would be the last province to complete its highway. There were several reasons for that. Newfoundland had the second-longest distance to cover, after Ontario, and the most difficult terrain, after British Columbia. With a population of 500,000, it also had the second smallest number of people to absorb the costs, and its per capita income was the lowest.

On July 12, 1966, Premier Joey Smallwood and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson attended the official opening ceremony at Pearson’s Peak, the mid-point of the Newfoundland section of the highway. He talked of great hopes for a greater investment in the Trans-Canada, including a tunnel. Lester B. Pearson handled the event with good humour and political savviness

Here are the speeches of the day from Premier Smallwood and Prime minister Pearson from liveCBC coverage at the time.

Now the tunnel Premier Smallwood pushes for would not happen, however the south coast of Labrador was isolated from the rest of the North American road network until completion of the Trans-Labrador Highway in 2009 and upgrades were made to Route 389.

Nonetheless, this event in 1966, would be the last official ceremony a PM would participate in celebrating the completion of the Trans Canada highway. However it’s important to note, that it wasn’t until 1971–5 years after, that the TransCanadian highway would finally be completed -paved end-to-end to the standards set out in the original Highway act at a cost of over 1 billion dollars.

In 1971, the completion of the milestone was not marked by a ceremony, but a modest final report issued by the Minister of Public Works at the time. Upon its completion in 1971, the Trans-Canada Highway was the most lengthy uninterrupted highway in the world.

Today the Trans-Canada Highway is the second longest national highway in the world and the work continues with modifications and additions being added every year.

Most of the highway and road construction is a provincial responsibility. Provinces decide on the design, construction, safety standards and financing of highways under their jurisdiction. The Government of Canada, however, is solely responsible for the maintenance and repair of the Trans-Canada Highway inside national parks

Some of the major work projects include the twinning and doubling to four lanes of Highway 1 in the Rockies which has been happening the past couple of years.

As well, the modern Trans Canada consists of several different routes that cross Canada. Two run from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick, one of which travels to Prince Edward Island by way of the Confederation Bridge. There are also two routes that begin west of Montreal and a few routes through Ontario. Travelling west, the main Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) passes through Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary and Banff. It then takes the highly scenic Kicking Horse Pass through the Canadian Rockies and continues through Kamloops to Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Regardless, of how you choose to go, the Trans Canada highway extends from Victoria in British Columbia to St. John’s City in Newfoundland and Labrador. It passes through all ten Canadian provinces and links all major cities in the country. It’s something all Canadians can be proud of.


Now onto the stamps that celebrate the Trans Canada highway. There have been two stamps released to celebrate it — although, I should note there are many stamps celebrating Canadian highways, these are the only two specifically celebrating the Trans Canadian Highway. We’ll save those other stamps, such as scenic routes, and the Alaskan Highway stamps for other episodes.

So let’s now dig into those stamps specifically honouring the Trans Canadian Highway.

The first was in 1962, when Canada Post released a stamp in conjunction with the official opening of the Trans Canada highway. It was released August 31, 1962, a couple of days before the opening ceremony at Rogers pass by Prime Minister Diefenbaker. The stamp The stamp was Designed by Alan L. Pollock, the picture was engraved by Yves Baril and the lettering engraved by Donald J. Mitchell. The stamp depicts the 10 provincial coat of arms, 5 on each side, with a solid two lane black line representing the Trans Canada running through it. It’s a 5 cent denomination stamp and 25 million stamps were printed by Canadian Bank Note Company, Limited.

Some interesting tidbits, as well. The date for this stamp is hidden in the “Coat of Arms” of Prince Edward Island. This is the second “Coat of Arms” in the second row.

Also the stamp designer’s initial can be found on the bottom-right corner of the stamp under the symbol for cents. The P is the initial for Alan L. Pollock.

The second stamp celebrating the Trans Canada came as part of Canada’s 150 celebration. This stamp was released in June 2017 as part of Canada’s Post Canada 150 celebration and was the 5th stamp released in their Canada 150 offering.

The stamp issue was designed by Roy White and Liz Wurzinger of Subplot Design Inc. in Vancouver, B.C., and printed by the Lowe-Martin Group.

It comes in the shape of a maple-leaf and depicts a green transcanada sign for Highway 1 in Alberta. The stamp measures 40 mm x 40 mm and is printed in 6 colours plus tagging. The self-adhesive stamps are available in a booklet of 10 (4 million stamps).

The stamp was also available on a gummed pane of 10 stamps, with circle perforations 4.5 cm in diameter. 80,000 panes were printed.

Finally, the stamp was also available as an Official First Day Cover. Cancelled in OTTAWA ON, it was available in a pack of 10, with a total of 10,000 packs released. This set contains for me, are some of my favourite Official First Day Covers from Canada Post.

The first day cover on the front side, has of course the stamp cancelled on the release date of June 1st out of Ottawa. It contains a map of the Trans Canada Highway, showing the various routes along the country. On the lower portion of the map are images of the several unique attractions one can see along the Trans Canada highway, including the Wooden head in Revelstoke BC, Mac the Moose in Moose Jaw Saskatchewan, and the Big Nickel in Sudbury Ontario.

On the reverse, is a couple of paragraphs about the history of the Trans-Canada highly and a corner photo gives you a peak at the rockies.

If you don’t have this stamp. Don’t worry, while these stamps are sold out on the Canada Post online store, you can still find them with relative ease on the secondary market. It’s a fun little addition to any collection.




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