Editor’s Note: This is the tenth in a series of posts about the papers being prepared for the Environments of Mobility in Canadian History workshop that will be hosted at York University’s Glendon College in May.
From the mid-1800s to the end of the Second World War, an untold number of Canadians supplemented their incomes by taking contract work as freighters. Like modern truck drivers, freighters specialized in moving goods from one place to another, filling in the gaps left by railway transport. Like the postman who worked through ‘rain or snow or sleet or hail,’ overland freighters braved the elements of the Canadian winter to move goods via horse and sleigh, particularly between the railhead and northern hinterland communities orphaned by the development of the railway.
Freighting developed as a major winter occupation for regional homesteaders and First Nations men, when Canadian winters provided a frozen roadbed suitable for hauling heavy loads over the muskegs, sloughs, rivers and lakes. After freeze-up, usually in January, ‘freight-swings’ composed of freighters, their sleighs and teams of horses would congregate in major communities at the end of the railhead all across Canada. With contracts in hand and goods precariously loaded, along with food for horse and man for the return trip, the swings would pull out. Supplying remote northern communities, freight swings brought needed supplies, information, and connection for northern inhabitants.
These loads consisted of goods for northern communities, mine development, commercial fisheries, and trappers. These goods were far too heavy to be transported via canoe or boat brigade using the old fur trade highways, a fact which necessitated the seasonal flip. Freighters were also interested in the backhaul: furs from the Hudson Bay Company or their rivals; lumber; minerals; and boxes upon boxes of frozen fish. Trails were deliberately cut to connect flat, frozen water routes. Yet, it wasn’t a simple task. Tales of disaster, blizzards, brutal temperatures, slush pockets and ice heaves added a high degree of danger. Nonetheless, commercial interests used overland freighters and seasonality to solve their transportation issues.
The rise of car tourism following the First World War initiated a significant change in transportation networks across Canada. In the north Prince Albert region, for example, winter trails cut for overland freighters were unsuitable for car traffic. The seasonal shift to summer use of the northern landscape meant that winter trails cut through muskeg and over lakes was useless. Roadwork became an important regional consideration to access the forest reserves for camping and fishing. The creation of Prince Albert National Park initiated national and provincial investment in roads and infrastructure, with the development of a summer road to the northern playground. New roadbeds went over high ground, seeking scenic points, picturesque curves, and a dry roadbed. As roads were developed, tourism advertisements concentrated on promoting summer lake excursions to swim, boat, fish, hike, tent, canoe, and relax in a northern, wooded landscape. These descriptors emphasized contrast to the southern open treeless prairie.
The two road systems existed for a period of time side-by-side, a complex landscape of roads and trails reflecting a mix of human needs, from commodity flows to tourism. Through a reading of contemporary maps and articles in the Prince Albert Daily Herald, my paper postulates that roadwork represented more than a basic push for ‘modernization’ or ‘development.’ The kinds of roads that were built, for whose use and for what purpose – and in what season of the year – is an important aspect of transportation history. In the Saskatchewan context, winter freight roads stitched together the two bioregional solitudes of prairie agricultural south and boreal resource north for extractive purposes, communication, and delivery of goods in both directions. Summer tourist roads, however, facilitated travel into a landscape that escaped from the ‘civilized’ south to enter a conceptualized ‘wilderness’ north, as exemplified by Prince Albert National Park’s tourism campaigns and the writings of Grey Owl, Canada’s original environmental superstar. The road system reflected both an economic and cultural use of the local landscape that hinged on seasonality – in winter, the north was a place of resource development; in summer, a place of beauty and relaxation.
Also see the Modern Voyageurs Movie, produced by National Parks of Canada, Department of the Interior, VT-R177.1. This silent film showcased the ease with which the car tourist could travel from Prince Albert to the new National Park, and typical activities found within the ‘prairie playground.’
Feature image: Brooks Northern Transportation freight swing with snow plow crossing Montreal Lake, c. 1920s. Prince Albert Historical Society. Image E 641.
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