Citizens of Chatham-Kent are wont to rant and rave about the potholes on our highways and byways especially after a long harsh winter. Victor Lauriston writes the following in his 1950’s publication Romantic Kent “Kent was, from pioneer days, notorious for its bad roads, impassable, or almost impassable, for long periods in spring and fall. Money for road improvements was scarce so under government legislation the device was adopted of each settler working out his share of road construction. This statute labour formed the basis of road works for many decades.
The earliest roads followed Indian trails along lakes, rivers and streams and overland offered portage routes between bodies of water. Since water travel was practical and so much easier, there was little road development until the nineteenth century. The Thames River Road ran along the south side of the river from its mouth to Arnold’s Mill (east of present day Kent Bridge) where it forded the river and continued on the north side.
In 1793 an act of the first parliament of Upper Canada placed all roads under the supervision of overseers or pathmasters. Settlers were required to maintain the road adjacent to their property or work 3 to 12 days a year on road maintenance. Failure to do so meant a fine of 5 shillings plus costs or 6 days in jail. Maintenance consisted of cutting down trees and removing stumps or any brush and fallen trees. Plank or corduroy roads,logs laid crosswise and covered with earth, were built across swamps. These roads became very dangerous when the logs rotted and wagon wheels fell through. Adding insult to injury, many of these ‘improved’ roads were toll roads. It did not take disgruntled travellers long to seek out safer dirt roads and ones that did not require a toll payment. The last toll road ran from Chatham to Charing Cross until 1881.
Since travel was difficult and often hazardous most journeys were done on foot or if one was fortunate enough by horse. Few roads could accomodate wagons and as late as 1842 there were only 25 wagons in Kent and Lambton Counties. Since only people of means could afford a wagon it was shared or rented. Ox drawn carts were more practical and some were homemade with wheels made from the round trunks of huge oak trees.
Stage coach travel came in 1828 when a route was established from Niagara to Detroit.
However, according to one passenger it was “a punishment of no ordinary severity”. Passengers were advised to wear hats to protect their heads but that did not prevent blood stains from occuring on coach roofs. When a coach became stuck in the mud the passengers got out and pushed. A journey of 25 miles could take as long as 9 hours. Journeys were often made more perilous when drivers made frequent stops for “liquid refreshment” at the many small inns along the way.
Anna Jameson did not have the luxury of a stage coach when in 1837 she made a trip to Chatham after visiting Colonel Talbot. The only vehicle available was farmer’s cart. Leaving the Talbot Road (Hwy 3) which was corduroy, the cart turned north on the Howard – Harwich town line. “The road was scarcely passable; there were no longer cheerful farms and clearings, but the dark pine forest and the rank swamps, crossed by those horrific corduroy paths (my bones still ache at the mere recollection!) and deep pools of rotted vegetable matter mixed with water, black bottomless sloughs of despond! The very horses paused on the brink of some of these mud- gulfs, and trembled ere they made the plunge downwards. I set my teeth, screwed myself to my seat, and commended myself to Heaven…but I was well nigh dislocated.” The inn she encountered on this sojourn (the only one within 35 miles) was but a rude log hut with one window and one room answering all purposes. Outside a shed of bark and boughs for the horses and a hollowed tree trunk for a trough.. After this they turned onto a blazed trail, with only marked trees to guide a traveller. You can imagine how glad Anna was to reach Chatham and the beautiful Thames River!
Next time we cruise Chatham-Kent’s not always but relatively smooth streets and highways, comfortably cushioned in our vehicles, toasty warm in winter and air conditioned in summer let us remember those bruised and battered early travellers as they bumped along their “new and improved” log roadways.
SOURCES: Romantic Kent by Victor Lauriston
The Valley of the Lower Thames by Fred Coyne Hamil
Heritage Canada from Readers Digest
Winter Studies and Summer Rambles 1838 by Anna Jameson
Wheel of Fortune
11062 River Line, Chatham, ON
Latitude : 42.48965 Longitude : -82.0858