by Merv Orr
When Merv Orr died in late February, we all lost a friend. One of the industry's good guys, he went trucking long before there were paved roads in some parts of the country. And long before he was old enough - at the age of 12 he ran away from home in Fort William, Ont., and joined a travelling circus. His job? Training monkeys and driving truck. After a stint in the Great Lakes merchant marine, still a teenager, he went on to drive for Superior Cartage, Smith Transport, and Reimer Express, among others. Much later, in the late 1970s, he put his years of experience to work at a driving school in Cambridge, Ont., where he trained hundreds of people who went on to establish useful careers in trucking. Frustrated by the Ontario government's unwillingness to establish meaningful training standards, and unable to change them on his own, he retired in 1993. Shortly afterwards, and grateful to trucking for the living it provided him and his family over many years, he wrote this remembrance of things past. - Rolf Lockwood
One of the nicest things about being a retired transport driver in your senior years is the ability to think back and reflect on the tremendous changes that have taken place over the past 45 years.
Back in 1948, the road between Toronto and Fort William (now Thunder Bay) was a real experience in an early 1940s Diamond T gas-job with a 32-foot furniture trailer. There was no Highway 400, so heading north on Yonge St. was the beginning of a two-day adventure on Highway 11.
As far as Orillia there was the problem of sharing the road with farmers with funny looking equipment that took up over half the road. There was also the stop sign at the bottom of a steep little hill. Towns thinned out as you made your way to North Bay and the "Gateway to the North" archway that signalled your only route from east to west in Canada. Thibault Hill was the first of two or three monster hills to challenge that little Diamond T.
Thirty or 40 miles later, you ran out of pavement except for a few miles before and after a town. There were no bypasses back then, so driving through Cobalt, Haileybury, and New Liskeard could be a real challenge, especially during the winter. I can still remember a steep downhill grade with a 90-degree left turn at the bottom. More than one driver going north didn't make it and went straight into the lake. Southbound travellers had to make the sharp right and go up the hill that was rarely sanded. If you spun out, you either sanded it yourself or backed down and waited for the DHO.
From there, the road got very rough and dusty, with a lot of bad potholes and washboard. Many sections couldn't be travelled at more than 20 mph. In summer there was always construction and detours. Getting stuck was always a possibility, and it wasn't unusual to wait two or three hours for the construction company to send a dozer to get you out. I remember a car carrier who was stuck once at a small detour. Unfortunately, smaller gravel trucks and cars could get around him so the construction company was in no hurry to pull him out. After waiting over an hour, I pulled up beside him and got stuck too. Now nobody could get by. They had a dozer there in about 20 minutes.
What we call the Trans-Canada Highway passes now, as it did then, through Smooth Rock Falls. The present bridge was built some time in the 1950s. But before that, you had to drive in to a pulp-mill yard and over a dam that had a sharp turn on it. The approach to the dam was angled to a wall of the mill which prevented widening your turn. If your trailer didn't clear the curb you had to get grease out of the mill's machine shop and grease the curb and steel decking so you could drag the trailer around. Anyone trying to drive a truck across Canada before the new bridge with a trailer longer than 36 feet was simply out of luck. Traffic along the early 'Trans-Canada' was often stopped for hours as drivers greased trailers or simply gave up and turned around.
After Smooth Rock, there were a few small towns along roads that were bumpy, dusty, and always under construction. After skirting Kapuskasing, you rolled west towards Hearst and the beginning of a 135-mile stretch that was more like a bush trail than a road. In the summer it was not unusual to travel those 135 miles without seeing another vehicle. If you broke down or got stuck the sand flies and mosquitoes would have a feast on you. In the winter, relay stations were set up at Hearst, Nigogimi, Pagawa, Klotz Lake, and Long Lac. If you left one and didn't reach the next within two or three hours, someone would be sent out to find you. Snow storms could be bad to drive in, but the most dangerous part was the cold. With temperatures dipping to more than 50 below, it was not uncommon to be driving with a heavy jacket and gloves on. Truck heaters in those days were not like today.
After clearing Long Lac, the next stop would be the truck stop at Jellicoe. In fact, only at the "Girls" truck stop at Muskoka, a small cafe at Liskeard, and then the stop at Jellicoe could you hope to find a hot cup of coffee year round.
From there to the Lakehead were some of the steepest and longest hills on the journey. In the winter you would have to take a run at them and hope you didn't spin out. Often you had to stop where you spun and walk up the hill sanding as you went, or back down and sand the whole hill to make another run at it.
It sure was a nice feeling to pass McKenzie because then you knew you had made it. A sense of achievement was felt pulling into the yard of Superior Cartage in Fort William as my boss, Sandy Henderson, greeted me with a smile. He was happy that I made it, and even more happy that it had only taken 48 hours.