Summer 1912, Thomas Wilby and Jack Haney made a road trip in a special REO from Halifax, NS to Vancouver, BC. Roads? What Roads? And the men? Not friends.
In a grand gesture, Jack Haney backed the wheels of the special Reo automobile into the beach water of the Atlantic Ocean at Halifax, Nova Scotia on August 27, 1912. Scooping up a jar of water, Thomas Wilby sealed the small container and tucked it away until they reached their destination: the Pacific Ocean.
Wilby Idea Funded by Olds
Thomas Wilby was a popular British journalist. The year before his Canadian expedition, he “had driven from New York to San Diego and back, and knew there was money and glory in writing and lecturing about the experience,” said Mark Richardson in “Canada’s first coast-to-coast road trip was no joyride” for Macleans. With a brilliant new proposal in mind, Wilby approached Ransom Eli Olds, owner of the Reo Motor Car Company of St. Catherine’s, Ontario. (Olds also owned the Oldsmobile Company.) Provide Wilby with an automobile, a driver and foot all the bills for a cross-country trip, and Wilby would write about the adventure. Motor vehicles were still relatively new and the public was eager to read about the exciting journey.
Olds and his firm agreed to the plan. A new Reo was outfitted especially for the occasion and Fonce V. Haney – Jack – was tasked as driver. A transplanted American, Haney was a young but very experienced mechanic in the employ of the Reo firm; Olds considered him one of the best. The motor car model for the excursion was by devised by Olds himself. He considered the beautiful black Reo “not only the best car he could ever design, but also the final word in automobile design,” said Bob Gordon in “Hell on Wheels,” Halifax Magazine, July 13, 2012. The trip was a “go” for the summer of 1912. Excitement reigned but it didn’t take long for troubles to surface, starting with personalities.
No Cross-Country Roads
“Wilby was a 45-year-old snob who had little time for Americans who would not defer to him,” stated Richardson. “Haney, 23, thought he’d be assisting a fellow gearhead; that illusion vapourized when the two first met in Halifax, and Wilby insisted on being called “sir.” The older man did not even attempt to endear himself to Haney on the trip – Wilby sat regally in the back as if he was being chauffeured. When the car required repairs, a flat tire fixed, or a push out of the mud, Wilby refused to assist. At all. The men were at odds throughout their journey.
And mud was a problem. Sturdy roads were few and far between in Canada in the early 1900s. Horse and buggy transportation was still used and smooth streets were an inspiration for the future. “… there were only 16 kilometres of paved road in the entire country,” Alan MacEachern wrote in The Globe and Mail article, “Goin’ in’ down the road: the story of the first cross-Canada car trip.” Without roadways, the Reo motor car was loaded “onto trains and ferries, including the entire 1,500 kilometres from Sault Ste. Marie to Winnipeg,” added MacEachern.
Road travel was difficult over the mountains and further into British Columbia. On October 7th, the trekkers temporarily crossed the border into Washington State and then back up into the province where the road was again accessible. Stopping in towns along the route, the Reo was a popular attraction. At many locations, a pennant was given to Wilby and Haney by mayors and townspeople to commemorate the impressive journey.
Wilby and Haney at Odds
Both men kept notes as the days and kilometres passed, Wilby’s for his book and Haney’s a journal of the trip. By September 4th, barely a week into the excursion, said Gordon, Haney wrote “I am heartily sick of my companion and will be mighty glad when the trip is over.”
Wilby and Haney arrived at Vancouver, BC in fifty-two days. Reaching the Pacific Ocean at Port Alberni, Haney once again touched the wheels of the Reo into the ocean to signal the completion of the ocean-to-ocean trip. Wilby dug out the flask of water carried thousands of kilometres across the country. Uncapping the container, he ceremoniously poured the water from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific. The date was October 14, 1912. (Wilby also performed the pouring of the water a second time at Victoria on Vancouver Island.)
Predicted the Trans-Canada Highway
In 1914, Wilby’s celebration of cars and the country, The Motor Tour Through Canada, was published. The young man who drove and repaired the automobile across the country was ignored throughout the book. Wilby did not mention Jack Haney by name once and only mentioning the driver a handful of times. The author did suggest that automobiles and roadways were a staple of the future.
Wilby predicted “the highway grid that the car required would bond provinces and regions together in a way that the straight line of the railway could never do,” noted MacEachern. “Where one automobile has travelled,” said Wilby, “a hundred will be ready to follow, and a thousand eager to travel a four-thousand-mile Highway through a panorama, unique, varied, rugged and consistently sublime.” How right Wilby would be, but the dream took decades to come true. The Trans-Canada Highway was completed in 1970, the longest national highway in the world at that time.
Reo Motor Car Priced at $1,600
A modern beauty in its era, the Olds-designed Reo could travel a racy 60 km/hr. The 35 HP four-cylinder engine featured three drive gears and reverse. Priced at $1,600 in Canada, said Gordon, the Reo was “equipped with a top and top cover, windshield, curtains, a reserve acetylene gas tank (for the headlights) and a speedometer.”
Today, a car trip across Canada from ocean to ocean may take one driver approximately seven days. Ferries and trains are no longer required, but there are no guarantees that flat tires or mud won’t happen.
- Richardson, Mark, “Canada’s first coast-to-coast road trip was no joyride,” Macleans, June 4, 2012 Accessed August 25, 2012
- Gordon, Bob, “Hell on Wheels,” Halifax Magazine, July 13, 2012 Accessed August 25, 2012
- MacEachern, Alan, “Goin’ in’ down the road: the story of the first cross-Canada car trip,” The Globe and Mail, August 20, 2012 Accessed August 25, 2012
- R.E. Olds Museum
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in August 2012. Copyright Susanna McLeod