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Roadbuilders bind Canada’s past to its future

0 182 Infrastructure

by Peter Kenter

Canada is defined by its streets, roads and highways, which is less an engineering miracle and more a force of will of the construction teams who carved roads through rock, forest, swamp, snow and muskeg.
Road construction takes place on Yonge Street in Toronto in 1954. Yonge Street is one of the most well-known roads in Ontario.
Road construction takes place on Yonge Street in Toronto in 1954. Yonge Street is one of the most well-known roads in Ontario. - Photo: CITY OF TORONTO ARCHIVES

Today, the names of dozens of streets and highways, part of an intricate transportation network, conjure up immediate associations with cities and landscapes.

There's the Alaska Highway, Yonge Street, Portage and Main, Sussex Drive, Robson Street, Blvd. St-Laurent, the Trans-Canada Highway, the Sea to Sky Highway, Icefields Parkway, Red Coat Trail, the Inuvik Tuk Highway, Cabot Trail, the Irish Loop, Fundy Coastal Drive, P.E.I.'s scenic heritage roads and Nunavut's ice roads.

In 1912, Thomas Wilby and Jack Haney became the first motorists to cross Canada, driving from Halifax to Port Alberni, B.C. Perhaps they didn't quite achieve that ambition because the car was at times loaded onto boats and trains to complete the journey.

But imagine a drive on Canada's roads in a vehicle that crosses time instead of distance.

There's no simple line of progress from one style of road to another. It's an ever-changing and overlapping array of materials and technology as builders work with what they have, with what works best and with what might just work.

The vehicle starts out on Canada's first roads, over trails carved through brush and forest by indigenous people. It moves onto the first graded road in Canada, built in 1606 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain. It's a 16-kilometre stretch joining Port Royal to Digby Cape, N.S

Some roads are simple turnpikes, created by clearing forest trails, digging ditches alongside and then compacting excavated dirt on top of the trail. Others are corduroy roads, built using felled logs placed crossways across the trail, with gaps filled in by dirt. You also pass over roads built on massive wooden planks mounted on risers.

Other roads are Macadamized, a type of construction invented by Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam around 1820. The method consists of laying down layers of compacted crushed stone and gravel. Properly sized, the broken, angular stones form a solid mass and deflect precipitation.

Other engineers develop water-bound macadam, which fills the gaps between stones using a mixture of stone dust and water. Tar-bound macadam uses a tar spray to bind the surface of the road. Spraying the stones with a mixture of coal tar and iron slag results in the original tarmac.

You're now travelling on concrete, perhaps on one of the first concrete roads in the country built in Quebec in 1910. The road runs 16 kilometres and connects Montreal and the Village of St. Rose. Up ahead in 1915, a stretch of road between Hamilton and Toronto becomes Canada's first length of smooth concrete highway.

All around you that year, the country's first asphalt paving springs up, first in Ottawa and then in Edmonton, Jasper and Camrose, Alta. The first asphalt roads are paved with natural asphalt, which is soon replaced by increasingly popular refined oil asphalt.

Watch roads forming, first by the sweat of human crews, picks and shovels alongside animal helpers — horses, oxen and mules. Mechanical devices soon begin to assist, excavating, lifting dirt and mixing cement. Graders and scrapers arrive and become larger and more efficient, powered first by steam, then by gasoline and diesel.

Asphalt plants join the array and spread fresh paving material onto roads as steamrollers provide a smooth and durable ride.

Travelling into modern day, construction techniques continue to improve as engineers use additives such as polymers and glass to improve both surface and durability. Recycling machines reprocess asphalt on the spot and create new road surfaces from old.

Concrete surfaces are reformulated and scored with microgrooves to improve performance. Both asphalt and concrete become increasingly self-healing to repair damage before it can cause distress to drivers.

Driving into the future, it's less clear what we see on the horizon. Engineers are already experimenting with solar roads and plastic roads that snap together like Lego. We might see roads created using nano-engineered materials offering fantastic properties — roads that never need to be plowed, or never need to be cleaned or resurfaced.

They could include computerized roads that help autonomous vehicles travel with greater safety and more efficiently. Canada is a country possessing a massive geography and roads will continue to bind the nation together for the next 150 years. The ingenuity and hard work of engineers, inventors and roadbuilders will see to that.

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