This year marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Toronto-Hamilton section of Canada’s first super highway, the Queen Elizabeth Way — or, to its millions of users, the QEW or the Queen E.
From what was a 65-kilometre, two-lane, slab of concrete called the Middle Road (so named because it was between Highway 5 to the north and Highway 2) has grown an eight- and 10-lane expressway from Toronto to Buffalo, N.Y., with controlled accesses, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and two massive bridges spanning ship waterways.
It is, in every sense, a “super highway” and it continues to be a work in progress.
But it took a politician with vision and the Great Depression to get it going.
To help stimulate the economy during the early 1930s, the Ontario government financed improvements to the Middle Road to take the pressure off Highways 2 and 5 for traffic moving between Toronto and Hamilton.
In the mid-1930s, Thomas McQuesten, provincial Minister of Highways and Minister of Public Works (and a Hamilton native), extended the funding and, after noting the impact of the German Autobahns with their ease of traffic flow and (for the time) safety features, oversaw a transformation of the Middle Road from two lanes to a dual-lane divided highway with a central median.
As the Depression lessened its grip on Ontario, the new highway was well-suited for passenger cars as well as the growing number of commercial vehicles that were starting to take business away from neighboring railroad lines.
After the Toronto-Hamilton stretch was opened in 1937, McQuesten’s vision included a continuation of the highway to the blossoming Niagara-area tourist attractions and, by June of 1939, a major portion of his vision became reality when King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, officially opened the new highway, which was named in her honour.
The first leg of the Queen E. was completed three years before the opening of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which is frequently called the first superhighway in North America. This Turnpike, however, was the first four-lane highway of its type in the United States. Started in 1937, a 275-kilometre piece of the route, from Carlisle to Pittsburgh, was opened to traffic in 1940.
Crossing between Ontario and New York State was important for tourism, and this challenge was met in Niagara Falls with the continuation of the QEW into that city, along with the building of the Rainbow Bridge at the same time. The new bridge over the Niagara River was completed in 1941.
Some sections of the highway remained gravel because of World War II and it wasn’t until 1941 that an extension of the Queen E. was built from Niagara Falls to Fort Erie. That stretch was the last to be paved and it didn’t happen until after the war was over.
All this infrastructure was well-planned, convenient for drivers, and reduced travelling times greatly.
But by the mid-1950s, times were changing. The population was increasing and communities were growing, especially along the Toronto-Hamilton corridor, taxing the Queen E.’s four lanes and — yes — some stoplight-controlled intersections.
While the first modern, controlled intersection, or cloverleaf, was built at the intersection of the QEW and Highway 10 before 1940, a government survey in 1952 found that half a million motorists that year simply ignored a stoplight on the QEW where it passed through Oakville.
That intersection, which was known as “Suicide Junction,” finally became a cloverleaf in 1957. It was part of a massive reconstruction at that time of interchanges and companion, or “service,” roads that were built next to the actual highway.
There were several bottlenecks that impeded traffic flow. The major ones were the crossing of the canal built for ships entering the harbor at Hamilton and the crossing of the Welland Canal at St. Catharines. There were also three traffic circles that created problems — one at the junction of Highway 20 near Hamilton (Stoney Creek) and two others at Niagara Falls.
Early in 1958, a 2.5-kilometre, four-lane bridge over the canal at Burlington Beach was completed. This massive structure — 64 metres high — provided much-needed relief for motorists who’d had to sit at the canal’s lift bridge while the iron boats and ocean freighters steamed in and out of Hamilton harbour.
This bridge — which is officially called the Burlington Bay-James N. Allen Skyway — was twinned in 1985, providing eight lanes of traffic movement.
The 2.25-kilometre St. Catharines bridge, officially called the Garden City Skyway, was completed in 1963 and provides six lanes over the Welland Canal.
Operated by the provincial government, motorists using those bridges were charged a toll — 15 cents per car (or 20 tokens for a dollar) and up to 45 cents for large trucks. Tolls remained until December, 1973.
The two Niagara Falls traffic circles were eliminated in 1971 and the notorious Stoney Creek traffic circle was removed in 1975. All were replaced with modern interchanges, so by the beginning of 1976, travellers were able to drive from Toronto to Buffalo unimpeded.
But the amount of traffic continued to increase, especially along the highway’s Toronto-Hamilton stretch. The province responded with expansion and upgrading of the Queen E.
A lane along the Oakville-Burlington section was developed as an HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane late in 2010, restricted to vehicles with two or more passengers, or “green” vehicles, in the hope of fighting some of the highway’s peak congestion.
In 1997, the city of Toronto reluctantly assumed ownership and responsibility for the QEW east of Highway 427 when responsibility for the stretch was downloaded by the provincial government. It has since been seen as an extension of the Gardener Expressway although some older motorists continue to think of it as part of the Queen E.
All this road expansion has been necessary. According to traffic surveys conducted by Ontario, the annual average daily traffic flow at the QEW and Highway 20 interchange in Hamilton was 77,000 vehicles in 1998. By 2008 this figure had increased to 145,100 and was over 160,000 vehicles during the peak summer season.
At the junction of the Queen E. and Highway 25, just west of Oakville, 95,500 vehicles passed that point daily in 1998. More than 181,000 vehicles were recorded in 2008, with more than 200,000 a day in the summer months.
The QEW has some special nuances not found on any other Ontario highway. There are no directional indications on the route, and there is no official route number, just the colourful (and now iconic) blue and yellow shields topped with a crown.
And one other thing: when you venture out on this highway, make sure you have lots of fuel in the tank. There are no gas stations on the Queen E.