Building the Opeongo Road

By Dr. Derek Murray

In my last post, I wrote about the surveyor on the Opeongo Road, Hamlet Burritt. After the survey was finished in 1852, it took a while for the road to actually get built. Government officials had a hard time deciding what kind of road to build. And, more importantly, how much was it going to cost?

Burritt proposed the Opeongo should be made into a “fair country cart road” for 45 miles beyond Renfrew, at a cost of £100 per mile. To put it into modern perspective, that means making a dirt track from Renfrew to Brudenell for about $500,000.

This is the kind of road Burritt was imagining:

Charles Macnamara, Road to Marshall's Bay (1903)

Photo Credit: Archives of Ontario

Pretty, huh? The road shown here is on the way to Marshall Bay at the mouth of the Mississippi River east of Arnprior. The picture was taken by Charles Macnamara in 1903.

The Opeongo Road that settlers encountered in the 1850s was not nearly this nice.

Thomas French was the agent responsible for placing settlers on the road. When he took a walk up the road in the autumn of 1855, he remarked on one section (between Ferguslea and Shamrock): “The road is almost impassable in consequence of its being cut up by travel and never having been repaired.”

And further along (between Shamrock and Dacre): “There is no possibility of passing over the road in its present condition at any season of the year owing to the number of trees that have been blown across it, and the entire destruction by fire of the bridge over Constant’s Creek.”

The road was built by local contractors. The government advertised short sections of road (usually 2 or 3 miles each) and contractors put in their bids at a public auction. It was a good way to make some extra money and also put one’s labour toward improving local infrastructure. This was also a way for the government to avoid corruption: advertising short sections, rather than the entire road at once, would prevent a monopoly.

Unfortunately, there was very little oversight of the construction process, which meant each section could look substantially different depending on the skill (and ambition) of the contractor.

This is how one official described the road when it was “finished” in 1857: “nine feet in the centre has been grubbed, and the road formed for a width of sixteen feet, with culverts and causeways in the swamps, well laid and earthed in the centre, and side ditches and discharges where required.”

A few years later, in 1861, another official was sent to inspect the state of the road. In his report, J.W. Bridgland described the road (between Dacre and Foymount) as “much cut up and out of repair…rough nearly throughout the whole distance, badly bridged in places, and chequered with frequent bad mud holes and rocky pitches. The bridges are much broken in places, short and uneven.”

So, when you’re walking down the Opeongo this summer, be thankful for modern asphalt!