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Hell on wheelsBy Bob Gordon | Jul 13, 2012
A century ago, a British gentleman and an American mechanic departed from Halifax on a most unusual trans-Canada adventure.
During a warm summer a century ago, Halifax’s newspapers were enthusing over the Duke of Connaught’s official visit to the Maritimes, while the reading public mourned the death of General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. Unnoticed, three intrepid trailblazers, soon to be known as the Pathfinders in their pursuit of a transcontinental automobile route through Canada, were converging on the city in mid-August.
Thomas Wilby was born in 1867 in Norwich, England, and began his journalism career in England. He moved to the United States in 1908, writing travel features for magazines. In 1911, he had convinced the Office of Public Roads in Washington, D.C. to send him on a circumambulation of the U.S., which he turned into On the Trail to Sunset. In early 1912, while writing On the Trail to Sunset in Montreal, he persuaded Ransom E. Olds, owner of the Reo Motor Car Company of Canada, located in St. Catharine’s, to provide a motor car and a man to act as mechanic and driver.
Olds selected his best mechanic in Canada, Jack Haney, to pilot and maintain the Reo. American by birth, Haney was ferrying cars from Flint, Michigan to Toledo, Ohio by the time he was 16. In 1910 he came to Canada as a troubleshooter. He rode trains across the country maintaining and repairing all the Reos operating in Canada. He arrived in Halifax, from Montreal on the morning of Monday, August 23. He met Wilby that evening.
The third member of the trio, the Reo, was missing. The boxcar carrying the automobile from St Catharine’s was temporarily lost and did not arrive until the August 26. The vehicle that Haney uncrated and fine-tuned, was, according to its designer, Olds himself, not only the best car he could ever design, but also the final word in automobile design.
“Reo the Fifth—the car I now bring out—is regarded by me as pretty close to finality,” he said. “Embodied here are the final results of my 25 years of experience. I do not believe that a car materially better will ever be built. In any event, this car marks my limit. So I’ve called it my ‘Farewell’ car.”
The Reo’s four-cylinder engine generated up to 35 horsepower, giving it a top speed of 60 kilometres per hour. It had three forward gears, reverse and a multiple disk clutch. Equipped with a top and top cover, windshield, curtains, a reserve acetylene gas tank (for the headlights) and a speedometer, it sold for $1,600 in Canada. Olds saw a promotional stunt in the Pathfinders’ trip, plus a chance to portray Reos as dependable, sturdy and safe.
Wilby saw another book in the quest to establish the All-Red Route, a coast-to-coast highway across Canada. This memoir, Motor Tour Through Canada, published in 1914, is as much a map of Wilby’s mind as it is a log of the journey. It reveals a great deal about his willingness to invent incidents, write characters out of the story and gloss over events less than spectacular.
It also exudes distaste for Halifax: “the disfiguring telephone poles, the crowded street cars with their clanging bells and noisy, rasping wheels…. the inartistic, tawdry wooden dwellings that alternated with the more solid houses of bricks.” Also earning his contempt were rural Nova Scotians, who “appeared and smelt like lumber-jacks who had never been far from the woods or from bad drinks.”
Wilby’s account of his departure from Halifax captures the dismissive attitude. He notes in passing departure day is to include “a little formal send-off by the Mayor and the presentation of a flag and a message for conveyance to the far-off coast of the Pacific.” He later notes: “we were off—the Mayor’s letter of greeting to the Mayor of Vancouver in my pocket.” In fact, the Deputy-Mayor had presented the Mayor’s letter to Wilby and Wilby never met the Mayor of Halifax. The ‘flag’ he was presented with was actually a pennant. According to The Halifax Herald, at city hall, “Deputy Mayor Martin and a number of aldermen gave the motorist a formal send-off…. A large crowd gathered…. Mr. Wilby was presented with a Halifax pennant by W. B. McDonald.”
In a moment of temporal harmony, the Mayor’s absence from Halifax spoke volumes. Mayor F. P. Bligh was in Windsor, Ontario attending the twelfth annual convention of the Canadian Union of Municipalities. Bligh had the honour of responding to the mayor of Windsor’s opening address. As the 1912 Reo the Fifth prepared to depart Halifax for the Pacific Coast, Halifax Mayor Bligh was symbolically shaking hands with the mayor of Victoria, British, Columbia, John L. Beckwith demonstrating the municipalities’ commitment to coast-to-coast cooperation. Less than two months later, Mayor Beckwith would welcome the Pathfinders to Victoria.
Similar cooperation was lacking between Wilby and Haney. Wilby disliked Americans and dismissed his chauffeur immediately: “like those whom I had seen in the States—sturdy, independent, self-contained fellows, with the sense of relationship to their fellow-men hopelessly confused by their own free interpretation of democracy and equality.” Wilby felt Haney was common and crude. Specifically, Haney objected when Wilby insisted on referring to him as the chauffeur and demanded that Haney address him as “Sir.” The Herald’s reference to a motorist, namely Wilby, was only the first indication of the Englishman’s monumental ego.
Haney’s name never appears in Wilby’s memoir; he mentions the “chauffeur” just four times. Some of the pictures that accompany the original edition of Wilby’s memoir, Motor Tour through Canada (1914) have Haney washed out. The final paragraph of Wilby’s “Introduction” to his memoir contains over one hundred words of thanks and acknowledgement, but nary a mention of the chauffeur. Wilby also seems to have purposefully blurred all the photographs that Haney asked him to take for him and of him.
September 4, surrounded by the elegance and comforts of the Chateau Laurier, Haney wrote in his diary, “I am heartily sick of my companion and will be mighty glad when the trip is over. He is too damn selfish.” The next day Haney’s disdain for the man he labelled “Captain” poured out: “One poor devil does all the work—that’s me. The work is going to be hard after leaving Toronto, and not having a MAN with me. I don’t know how I’ll make out.”
Despite the mutual animosity, they managed to haul their automobile to the Pacific coast, although the trio hardly established an All-Red trans-Canada route. Between North Bay and Sault Ste. Marie in northwestern Ontario, the trio took the train 126 kilometres and a tugboat 56 kilometres. From the Soo to Port Arthur the Pathfinders and their Reo sailed aboard the steamer Ames. From Port Arthur to Selkirk, a mere 45 kilometres from Winnipeg, the trio rode the railway. They covered this continuous section of the trip, in excess of 1,000 kilometres, by rail and ship. Crossing mountains in British Columbia they relied on the railway again on October 6, and briefly detoured into Washington State on the next day.
Regardless, after a celebratory luncheon in New Westminster, they arrived in Vancouver at 4 p.m. on October 14. Haney ceremonially dipped the wheels of the Reo in the Pacific and Wilby poured a flask of water from Bedford Basin into the Pacific Ocean. Apparently, Wilby had filled a bottomless flask in Halifax because he repeated the ritual in Port Alberni and again in Victoria in the following days.