It is impossible to say that construction of the Trans-Canada Highway began on a specific date because the project incorporated a variety of already existing roadways, some of them going back many years. It is possible to say that organized lobbying for a national road began on an early May day in 1912 when a group of automobile enthusiasts gathered outside the town of Alberni on the far west coast of Vancouver Island. The event was sponsored by the Canadian Highway Association, a group which had been formed in New Westminster the previous year to work for the completion of a trans-continental highway.
At Alberni, they were joined by members of the Victoria Automobile Club who had driven up from the capital in a 50-car convoy across the newly-opened Malahat Highway. The purpose of the gathering was to publicize the project by unveiling the first signpost. The sign read “Canadian Highway” and marked Mile 0 on a road that had yet to be built. (Shortly after the sign was erected, it was stolen one night and repositioned inside the city limits of Port Alberni, Alberni’s rival community. The original promoters stole it back and chained a fierce-looking bull terrier to the post to make sure the theft did not happen again.)
Looking back, one cannot help but admire the audacity of this small band of automaniacs standing in the rain outside Alberni. The age of the automobile had hardly begun and here they were proposing that a highway be built from sea to distant sea and that it be completed in just four years. At the time there were fewer than 50,000 licensed automobiles in the whole country. British Columbia had just 4,000; Nova Scotia a mere 911. These were not large enough numbers to convince public officials of the need for local roads, let alone a national highway. In Prince Edward Island, antagonism from farmers against the horseless carriage was so strong that the legislature had voted to ban them, and the island remained car-free until 1913, at which point motorized vehicles were allowed on the road for three days of the week. The speed limit on provincial highways across the country was 30 kilometres an hour, and frightening the horses still earned motorists a heavy fine. The roads that were being built led south toward the American border, not east-west through the vast expanses of the Canadian interior. The only concrete highway in the country was a 16-kilometre stretch outside Montreal.
The Canadian Highway Association was undaunted by such statistics. Members were determined to rally public opinion behind the highway project. As a publicity stunt they offered a gold medal to the first motorist driving an all-Canadian route from Halifax to the Pacific. (A pair of American motorists, Dr. A. Nelson Jackson and his chauffeur, Sewall Crocker, were the first to drive across the United States, from San Francisco to New York, in 1903, and their feat had been duplicated many times by 1912.) The medal was donated by A.E. Todd, a Victoria salmon canner, president of the Victoria Automobile Club and proud owner of a shiny new Cadillac. The medal was intended to encourage some adventurous motorist to attempt a continental crossing, and in the process stir up public interest in better roads.
And so begins the saga of Thomas Wilby and Jack Haney.