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Contributed photo

Contributed photo

A man replaces a tire on a Model T Ford in the 1920s.

Early roadways a pain in more ways than one

Mary Smith, Historic St. Marys

Antique and classic automobiles are intriguing, drawing not only car enthusiasts but also members of the general public whenever they are exhibited. But, as this week’s photograph shows, there was a down-side to early car ownership. Travellers could expect trips to be interrupted by events such as punctured or blown-out tires. They had to be ready to make on-the-spot repairs as was this driver, working at the roadside by the rear wheel of a Model T Ford.

Rubber in old tires was not as resilient as various additives and manufacturing processes have made it today. But a greater hazard was the condition of early roads. In 2012, we complain about potholes and uneven pavement. There was no such thing as pavement in the St. Marys area in the early 1900s. A road that was regularly gravelled and graded was the best that could be hoped for and then only in good weather. Automobiles were put into storage for the winter.

The history of early roads is tied to the growth of southwestern Ontario. The Canada Company, the agency that was first responsible for attracting settlers to the townships in and around Perth County in the mid-1800s, promised good roads. In reality, the development of township and county roads was quickly passed to newly-formed municipalities.

Roads were financed by various means including tax levies and statute labour. (Originally, owners were required by statute to maintain the roadway fronting their property — not always a satisfactory system.) Some private road companies were formed that sold shares to raise capital. The London and Proof Line Gravel Road going west from St. Marys was one example. Both municipalities and private companies used tollgates at access points to busy roads to extract user-fees.

The road in this photograph from the early 1920s appears to be in good condition and, by this time, the roads system was much better developed. Still, the driver clearly has had trouble and is crouching beside his car in what looks like a good shirt and dress shoes. He and the photographer — perhaps his wife — may have been on their way to some special event such as a wedding. They had a camera at hand to record this frustrating delay in their expedition.

To learn more, reserve a place in the St. Marys Museum’s seminar on early transportation, this Thursday evening, Nov. 15. Call 519-284-3556 for information.

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