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Before GPS, maps ruled the road

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The growth of road systems in Ontario, along with the growth of the province itself, is demonstrated in provincial roadmaps of days gone by.

Long before the days of Mapquest, Google and GPS systems, road maps were a necessity for motorists. These obligatory travelling items, whether from the local gas station or a government-issued handout, were studied before even the shortest trip, and were a mainstay in the car’s glovebox.

By 1929, Ontario had a series of highways, most in the southern half of the province, and these roads were under continuous update. But trips were still long and arduous, as only a small portion was paved.

“For the past 28 years, the provincial government has been interested financially in the improvements of Ontario’s roadways,” stated the official 1929 map, adding that, out of 70,374 miles of provincial roads, 6,536 were paved.

At the time, only 31 roads were under provincial jurisdiction, and they were not known as highways. For example, motorists travelled from Ottawa to Kingston on “Road No. 15” for a total of 131 miles.

The earliest highways were established about 10 years before this map was produced, and the province gave them a chronological numbering sequence. Hwy. 2 was the longest, listed at 544 miles between Windsor and the Quebec border. Although it was totally paved, other highways were hit-and-miss.

Train travel was much easier, civilized and affordable. Car ownership was rare compared to today, but Ontario led the way with its love of cars.

According to a 1930 Royal Commission on Automobile Insurance Rates, Canada’s population in 1928 was 9.6 million, with a third of that from Ontario. Of the 931,000 autos in the country, more than 437,000 were registered in Ontario. There were also large numbers of vehicles crossing into the province from the U.S., close to 3.5 million in 1929 alone.

By 1933, it was possible to travel north in reasonable comfort, with Hwy. 11 paved from Toronto to north of Huntsville, and improved gravel roads between North Bay, Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. But with no road out of the Soo, you had to take the train or a boat to the grain centres of Fort William and Port Arthur.

Population and commerce did not increase greatly in Ontario during the 1930s, due to challenging economic times, but the province did continue building and improving roads. It was during this decade that most major roads became provincial highways and many are still in service. There were close to 200 routes established before World War II, including the country’s first four-lane, controlled-access highway: the Queen Elizabeth Way, joining Toronto, Hamilton and Niagara.

Border crossings received new bridges and approaches to welcome the influx of U.S. visitors.

Truck traffic grew tremendously during the 1930s, and became a serious economic threat to railroads, as did inter-city bus lines.

The gas station had become an established and necessary commercial facility along the highways of the time. Oil companies vied for business with clean and colourful buildings, amenities, personalized service and promotional items, such as road maps, matches and calendars, all bearing the name of the station and its products.

It was during this era that oil companies produced some of the most flamboyant and detailed road maps, showing their stations along the highways, along with inset maps of metropolitan areas and mileage distance charts.

By 1960, Ontario had its 400-series highways well underway. Hwy. 400, completed in the early 1950s, let motorists and truckers travel from Toronto to Barrie on a controlled-access route, bypassing all the towns along the parallel Hwy. 11. The longest super-highway, the 401, cut across Ontario from Quebec to Michigan through the most populated areas of the province, replacing Hwy. 2 as the main artery.

The province had also established a secondary highway system in north and central Ontario, with the 500 and 600 series, and most of these routes were paved by 1955. Ontario links to the Trans-Canada Highway were established, using Hwys. 7, 11, 12, 69, 400 and 417.

By 1960, drivers could travel along Hwy. 17 from Ottawa to the Manitoba border, a distance of more than 1,300 miles (some unpaved), making this highway the longest in Ontario. Number two in length is Hwy. 11, which starts at the foot of Toronto’s Yonge St., travels north to Cochrane, and then west through some of the most remote regions of the province to Rainy River.

One sure sign of growth and expansion in Ontario between 1929 and 1960 is displayed by the number of inset maps included with the provincial map. The 1929 map shows 17 communities, while the 1960 map shows 40.

The 1960 map also tries to promote road safety, with little verses scattered across the blue vistas of the Great Lakes: “Nobody gains in racing with trains,” “Drive to arrive alive,” and “A child may dare so drive with care.”

By 1960, the maximum speed was 60 mph (100 km/h). This rate was established in 1959 on the 400 and 401 highways, up from the 50 set in 1937 (although it was reduced to 40 from 1939-45). In the late 1920s, the limit was 35 mph, a speed that would have been hard to hold on the gravel roads of the day.

In the late 1960s, the speed limit was pushed to 70 mph (112 km/h) on the 400-series highways, and then back to 60 in the mid-1970s as a nod to conserving fuel. Major two-lane provincial highways enjoyed 60 mph, and then were pushed back to 55.

In 1977, Ontario converted all its signs to the metric system, a move that still confuses U.S. tourists not familiar with kilometres. According to Ontario Tourism, there were more than 11 million auto crossings into Ontario in 2010 from adjoining states. Today, the limit is 100 km/h on major four-lane highways, and 80 on most two-lane highways.

Roadmap collecting is a popular hobby among auto enthusiasts and those interested in history in general. Millions of maps were produced, and can be found at flea markets, nostalgia shows and various websites.

There are still maps available for those who prefer them. A hard-copy Ontario roadmap is available from the province through its website for $2.95.

For more on Ontario’s highways, check out Christopher Bessert’s website,, or, a comprehensive and encyclopedic site painstakingly assembled by Cameron Bevers.

  • Before GPS, maps ruled the road

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