The recent victory of the federal Liberals and the likelihood of a Liberal victory in the provincial election will hopefully lead to and new era of provincial-federal cooperation, especially after years of “Steve and Danny” antagonism. This got me thinking about a bygone era of Federal-Provincial cooperation and a long gone monument that was stuck up in the middle of the woods in Central Newfoundland.
Somewhere in one of my mother’s photo albums there is a black and white picture taken on high street by the bank of Montreal. The picture is of “Joey” Smallwood and “Mike” Pearson. The year was 1966 and the occasion was the completion of the trans-Canada highway across Newfoundland.
Joey had managed to finagle 90% funding for the highway across the island from Pearson. To say it was badly needed was an understatement. For years the only way that you could travel from St. John’s to Port Aux Basque continuously by land was via the railway-which took, on a very good day, 23 hours. To travel for any distance by car was an adventure. There were islands of gravel road, corduroy roads laid over bogs rivers that had no bridges and were crossed by scow ferries, and places were cars had to be put on the train because there was no road connection at all. What roads that there were, were largely unpaved and riddled with pot holes. To get Newfoundland into the second half of the twentieth century there needed to be a highway.
Completing the Trans-Canada across the island was a monumental and little documented undertaking. Just take a look the next time you drive across the island, at the rock cuts, the bogs and ponds that had to be crossed and rivers that had to be bridged. Off the Avalon there was very little pavement and most of the roads that did exist were barely wide enough for two cars.
Surely a little Province like Newfoundland could not undertake that task with its own money. So Smallwood turned to Ottawa. Agreements had been signed with the Federal Government in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. One agreement signed in 1950 called for a fifty-fifty cost sharing on the highway. Under this agreement the highway was to be finished by 1956. But by 1956 precious little had been done because of lack of funds and traversing the island by car was still an adventure. That year another agreement was reached that provided for 90-10 Federal provincial funding. This agreement led to the building of close to one hundred kilometers (96 actually) of road. In 1960 yet another 50-50 agreement was reached. After Lester Pearson was elected a much better agreement was reached in June of 1964. Under this agreement the Federal Government would cover 905 of all construction undertaken between April, 1963 and December, 1967. With this agreement signed the rush was on to complete the highway in the allotted time.[i]
But once Joey got the money from Pearson and the feds the push was one. “We’ll finish the Drive in 65…Thanks to Mr. Pearson” was the slogan. When the dust cleared there was a paved highway from St. John’s to Port Aux Basque. It cost the federal government $92,000,000 (Over $600,000,000.00 today).[ii]
To celebrate the completion of the highway the following year was going to be come home year. Countless thousands passed by the monument on their way across the island as hundreds returned home from the mainland during the yearlong celebration. No doubt many stopped to admire Pearson’s peak.
To commemorate the completion of the highway a pillar was commissioned. It was a rock and concrete obelisk perched atop a hill between Grand Falls and Badger at a point determined to be the midpoint of the road across the island. On it was a lit up maple leaf and a plaque. Two motorcades were started to commemorate the completion of the highway Smallwood headed west from St. John’s and Pearson headed east from Port Aux Basque. On July 12, 1966 the two cavalcades met at the center of the highway where the pillar had been built….at Pearson’s Peak.
But now it’s gone. I remember going up to Pearson’s Peak in the late 1980’s and even there I recall it wasn’t in the best shape. I associate going up there with my Grandfather Baker. Pop was a lifelong Liberal and a Smallwood supporter-he had Joey’s famous 3D picture framed. I am not sure how many times we did it but we would go to Aspen Brook Park or a gravel pit in that area and have a mug up with the Coleman stove then maybe run up to Pearson’s Peak…to just look at it, since that’s all there was to do there.
Pearson’s Peak disappeared. The monument wasn’t kept up, the road to it deteriorate and grew in. the woods around it grew up and you could no longer see it from the road. Eventually because of safety concerns a ditch was cut across the access road so nobody could get up to the crumbling obelisk. Then sometime in the late 1990’s[iii] Pearson’s Peak was demolished.[iv][v]The maple leaf and bronze plaque disappeared, though there are stories that they still may be somewhere in central.
The Peak was likely finally done away with in the wake of the privatization and cuts of the Provincial Parks since I believe it did fall under the same jurisdiction. The Tobin Government privatized or decommissioned many of the parks that had been established to accommodate all the tourists that were expected for come home year.
Now are highway is not the best, most of the bridges built back in the 50’s and 60’s are or have been replaced, the surface has been patched and paved over so that in many places it looks like a hobos pants. But the fact that we have a road across the island is a testament to federal-provincial cooperation.
We’ll Finish the Drive in 65….and start the fix in 66.
[i] Encyclopedia of Newfoundland Highways.
[ii] Encyclopedia of Newfoundland Highways.
[iii] The most common date is 1997, which is interesting because it was another “tourism year” the year of the Cabot 500 Celebrations.