|A road in 1816 was not what we would call a road today. The first road to Perth was simply an opening in the woods of sufficient width to allow a wagon to pass. William Bell, who walked the road in June of 1817, described the section from Toledo to Rideau Ferry as "nothing more than an avenue cut through the extensive forest where the traveller had to pass over rocks, and wade through swamps and to surmount all the inequalities of the ground in its natural condition" (Skelton, p.111).
Many roads started off as blazed trails, marks put on trees so that a traveller on foot could follow the route. Some of these turned into bridle paths, enough trees and undergrowth cut down to accommodate a rider on horseback. The next level of improvement was what Bell described, a road wide enough to allow wagons to pass. They were very rough and people got hurt (bruises and broken bones) from wagon travel over these sorts of roads.
Trees were cut by hand using axes (saws were not used for tree felling until the late 1800s) and the road would have wound its way around the stumps. Squared timber to build cabins or for any other use was also done using axes at that time. Sawmills of that period were use for sawing planks and later shingles. Complaints were made by the Perth setters that the axes supplied to them were of the inferior English type (too light) as opposed to more robust American axes that were better suited to this heavy work. One settler reported "the axes [English] are light, thin, and flat and were long used in the settlement for cutting ice or splitting pumpkins, but never for cutting down trees." (McGill, pg.17).
"Near Old Sly's, Rideau" by James Pattison Cockburn, c.1830. The scaling might be a bit exaggerated, but this shows a French-Canadian axeman and the axe-cut stumps of some big trees. The road in the painting, with a stump in the middle of it, would have been typical of this period, winding through heavy forest. Library and Archives Canada, C-012607.
Over time the road would be widened and the surface improved. But even by 1828, only a few roads in this region were what we would call good. Walpole 1828 has a notation showing that shaded roads on his map are those where "waggons heavily loaded pass through them in the wet season" – that was the mark of a good road. That same map also shows "bridle path through the woods," "road cleared of timber but very bad," "this road is merely marked out," and a few with a "good road" notation.
Different methods were used to improve roads. In swampy areas, small tree trunks were laid down adjacent to each other on the soft ground forming what was known as a corduroy road. While this method of road improvement prevented wagons from sinking, it also created a very rough ride. Another improvement was the plank road – thick cut planks providing a solid flat foundation for a layer of dirt or gravel on which the wagons travelled. In 1849, the road from Unionville (Forthton) to Farmersville (Athens), a road previously travelled by the first settlers to Perth, was planked. Another method used at that same time was a macadamized road, a layering of stone and gravels to provide both a solid foundation and good running surface. But those types of good roads lay in the future for the first settlers to Perth. In 1816 most new roads were simply glorified trails.
The roads have been re-aligned over the years. Many of the first roads were "forced roads" – roads that don't follow lot or concession road allowances and travel over private property, basically from point A to point B, following the easiest topographic route. When townships were laid out, a system was put in place to provide a road allowance between all Concessions and a side road allowance between selected lots. In some cases these were the first roads in an area since a lot or concession line provided a marked route to follow (so we do see some very straight early roads). But in many cases, these alignments happened later, after the first forced roads. Some sections of the Brockville to Perth road were moved to official road allowances, often at the request of local landowners.
Even today, early survey errors (and there were many) are indicated by a sharp jog in a road as it goes from one township to the next since they are following surveyed concession lines that don't line up (as they should) between townships.
Jogs in early roads were common. The fastest travel was using horses, not very fast in modern terms, so bends around obstructions and sharp turns where one road met another were not an issue. In the 20th century, with the advent of cars, smooth curves to allow this much faster form of travel were required and many roads were re-aligned. Grades were also improved over time. A blasted rock cut is a sign of a 20th or 21st century road improvement.
Spring 1816 - Background