This is the third post in the Winter in Canada series edited by M. Blake Butler and Ben Bradley.
Like a winter storm, modernity arrived on Prince Edward Island with a wallop. Following the Second World War, the commercialization of agriculture and a steep rise in the number of Islanders employed in waged labour created a demand for all-season automobile use – and thus all-season roads. In winter, that meant an extensive snow-removal program provided by an expanding state.
Centred on small family farming for generations, Prince Edward Island’s economy changed significantly in the postwar period. In order to remain competitive, Island farmers needed to mechanize, which required cash. Yet as Edward MacDonald points out, they were “netting only 30-40% of the average income for waged Canadians.” At the same time Island farmers were going out of business, the federal government began injecting more money into the province’s economy. Many facing a shortage of work on the farm found employment in the many service sector jobs that federal funding created in the Island’s urban centres, Charlottetown and Summerside. All-season roads were important in this new economy. The Island’s remaining farmers sought to boost their cash incomes by specializing in particular crops or animal products. Specialization meant abandoning self-sufficiency, so these farms relied on all-season access to markets, both to sell their products and to buy the inputs necessary for their farming operation. Many Islanders who began working in the wage economy continued living in rural areas and commuted by automobile to Charlottetown or Summerside each day for work. They, too, needed all-season roads.
Conservative and Liberal provincial administrations of the 1930s had dabbled in clearing rural roads in winter, buying snowplows and trucks to push them. But the Island’s changing postwar economy demanded more from Premier J. Walter Jones and his Liberal government. By 1948, the deputy ministers of the Department of Public Works and Highways acknowledged that “[s]now plowing of our principal roads now is an accepted feature of Public Highway Service.” To that end, the Department dedicated more resources to snow removal. It conducted its “largest winter operation to date” during the winter of 1947-48, keeping open 400 of the Island’s 3,200 miles of road. Snowplowing costs are available in disaggregate form starting in 1949, when the Department spent $70,000 on snow removal compared to $1,200,000 on highway construction and paving. By the winter of 1951-52, the Department claimed it was keeping open “almost every road on the Island.” This claim might have been hyperbole, or the Department’s snowplowing capacity might have increased eightfold in four years. The answer is likely somewhere in the middle, as indicated by the Department spending $150,000 on snow removal that year compared to $1,000,000 on construction and paving.
At the same time the Department’s winter costs were rising rapidly, much of the road construction done to improve spring, summer, and fall driving also facilitated snow removal. The Department added subgrade beneath the surface of many roads in order to raise them up higher than the surrounding terrain, thereby allowing plows to lift snow up and away from the side of the road in the winter.
The 1960s accelerated the dramatic changes in rural-urban relations underway since 1945. The number of Islanders employed on farms shrank from 27 percent of the labour force in 1961 to 14 percent in 1971—a drastic drop from three decades earlier. Specialized farm operations relied on snowplowed roads and driveways to buy and sell goods year-round. Many farmers ran low on feed in the late winter and needed to have more brought to them by truck, making snowplowing especially important at that time of year. Fuel trucks delivered gasoline and diesel to power farm tractors and trucks. With these machines, Island farmers delivered their goods to market throughout the winter. Seed potato growers took loads of tubers to off-Island customers, and livestock farmers trucked hogs and beef cattle to slaughterhouses in Charlottetown and Summerside.
The great fall in the number of Islanders employed in farming was offset by the dramatic rise of the service industry, which accounted for two-thirds of the Island’s economy in 1961 and almost three-quarters by 1971. The many rural Islanders employed in the service industry needed to get to work in the Island’s urban areas every day, in every season. By the 1960s, this pattern of living in the country and working in the city was imprinted on land settlement patterns. Owing to their rural identity, and to the cheaper land in the country, many Islanders built new homes on small roadside plots carved from the family farm. Known as “ribbon development,” this settlement pattern reinforced the government’s obligation to provide rural snowplowing. In 1967, Deputy Minister of Highways R.G. White concluded that the increased demand for snowplowing was caused partly by the fact that “nowadays many people who live in the country, work in town.”
For both farmers and service industry workers, reliable winter transportation was paramount. Clifford Sherren, Supervisor of Pavement Maintenance in the Department of Highways, noted this fact in 1964, stating that “[w]inter maintenance has now become a major item in this Department, with the Province’s whole economy depending on highway traffic during the winter months.” During the fiscal year ending March 1964, the Department spent $1.6 million on “Snow & Ice Control” compared to $760,000 on construction and $1.3 million on paving. In an internal document in November 1964, a Department official described the winter costs as “staggering,” especially the $400,000 spent plowing farm lanes—a cost “not borne by any other province in Canada.”
The provincial government’s provision of snowplowing in the immediate postwar period was one way the state took on a more pronounced role in Islanders’ lives than in decades past. The more Islanders were employed by the state, the more they needed to get to work in the city. In a feedback loop, the growth of the state demanded more snowplowing, and to provide more snowplowing, the state needed to grow further. But the Island’s modernization had a decidedly rural character. Agriculture remained an important part of the economy, and having become increasingly commercialized, farming required reliable winter transportation. Moreover, many Islanders who commuted to work in urban centres continued to live in rural places and identify as rural people. The Island’s economy had come to rely on automobility in all seasons. Automobiles, paved roads, and state-provided snowplowing allowed many Islanders to retain a rural identity even though they spent much of their time and money in the city. While it may not have “paved the way,” snowplowing cleared the road to Prince Edward Island’s modernization.