The first European roads in Canada were cleared dirt paths, and were really only useable in mid-summer when the earth was dry and hard enough for travellers on horseback, or in winter when sleighs could travel across packed snow.
In the 19th Century, the government began investing more in the creation and improvement of roads. There were several reasons to do so: encouraging commerce, efficient movement of the military, improving postal service, and opening new land for settlement.
Yonge Street was one of the first major road investments in the area, originally created as a military route from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe. The rivers in the area were shallow, making them difficult to navigate in summer, and so the solution was a road to make transportation quick and as easy as possible.
Corduroy roads were an early road “improvement.” They were made by laying logs horizontally on top of dirt paths. These hard and uneven roads were uncomfortable to drive over, and caused a lot of damage when logs inevitably spun and shifted. Corduroy roads were notorious for breaking wagon wheels, and horses’ legs!
Photo: Corduroy Road Over A Swamp In Orillia Township, Ontario - Titus Hibbert Ware. Toronto Virtual Reference Library
By the 1850s plank roads were a more common road improvement. These roads were made of split wood boards laid flat to create a smooth surface. They provided a much safer, faster and more comfortable ride, however they required constant maintenance to avoid rotting. For this reason plank roads were usually tolled to help pay for upkeep.
Markham had plank roads on Hwy 48, connecting Markham and Scarborough, and along Elgin Mills, to connect the Markham Scarborough plank road to Yonge Street. Toll keepers would collect fares at tollhouses positioned along the length of the roads.
A common variety of passenger wagon found and produced in Ontario was the Democrat - a cross between a Buggy and farm wagon, with the body of a wagon but with an extra upholstered seat board and an open top. It was a forerunner to the station wagon and may have developed from the farmer’s practice of adding additional seats to avoid tax on pleasure vehicles.
Photo: Democrat Wagon, 1910. Markham Museum Collection M.1989.0.375
To remove the wheels of a wagon, people used jacks like this to raise the wagon’s axle. This made it easier to grease the wheels, repair the tires or change from wheels to sleigh runners much the same way we put on winter snow tires today.
Gift of the Ward Family (Mrs. June A. Ward) M.1987.20.31.b
In 1861 Markham had 31 registered carriage and wagon makers, the largest being Speight Carriage Works established in 1830.
Employing 125 people, the factory produced hundreds of carriages, sleighs, wagons and baby carriages, sold across the country. The stage coach was used in Markham and varied in model from open wagons to Park Drags or Red Coaches. Travel on these coaches was seldom comfortable and passengers could be expected to help push at any time. Despite this, they were relatively reliable and became both the first public transport service vehicle and first regular mail service vehicle in the area.
The rise of the automobile would end the usefulness of horse-drawn transportation, but it would mark a revitalized effort in building and upkeep of roads…
Photo: John Thompson’s stage coach at Dominion House Hotel. Yonge St. Weaver Collection M.2003.12.4.29.15
New Demands on Roads
At the turn of the 20th Century, automobiles quickly started to replace horse-drawn vehicles. With this change, advocates expressed the need for good roads and put pressure on their towns to improve and expand the road system, connecting them to other towns and villages. By 1916 the demands for new highways and road upkeep had increased so much that a new department within the government of Ontario was established, The Department of Public Highways of Ontario.
Road construction has continued to increase to the present time. The only two pauses on expansion happened during WWI and WWII. In the 1930s the Great Depression left many Canadians out of work. Road building projects were used as a form of unemployment relief, it provided many men with steady jobs. The most famous road from this project is the Queen Elizabeth Way.
Photo: Chevrolet H2 1/2 Royal Mail with a 1922 Licence plate. Fred W. Dixon Collection M.2012.0.365.49
In the 1950s a population boom in Ontario of around 10,000 per month created a large demand for new and better highways. Markham has two freeways running through it. Highway 404 runs north-south between Woodbine Ave. and Leslie Street. Construction started in 1977 and was completed in 1989. Highway 407 runs east-west through Markham between Highway 7 and 14th Avenue. It was first planned in the 1950s but the first portion did not open until 1997.
Photo: Intersection of Markham Road and Stouffville Road, looking north. 1940. Gift of Mrs. Douglas Davis M.1978.18.23
The Star Car was a product of the Durant Motor Company, which operated in the Leaside district of Toronto on Laird Avenue. Built in 1926, this particular 4-door Star Sedan was first sold in Markham by Ed Stonehouse from his dealership on the northwest corner of Hwy. 7 and Markham Road.
The car was eventually purchased at auction by Austin Reesor, for whom the car was a prized possession. The car remains in remarkable condition, with low mileage (10Km) and an entirely original interior, exterior and upholstery. After Mr. Reesor’s death the Markham Historical Society purchased the car and donated it to Markham Museum in 1989. Gift of Markham Historical Society, from the Estate of Austin Reesor M.1989.32.1
Star Car Brochure, Gift of Randy Barber M.2014.6.1