WORKING ON THE HIGHWAY
Smells are the best things to call up memories. Smells can usually trump sights and sounds. One of my memories of smell takes me back to the building of the “New Highway” from Dundas to Hamilton in 1937. Of course there were sights and sounds related to that venture but it is the smells that trigger my memories of those road-construction days. The highway was actually the extension of King Street East, along beside the Canal, through the swamps of Brown’s Bush, crossing Spencer’s Creek (Black Crick) and bending up the hill past the west side of McMaster University. It joined up with Highway eight (Main Street) near the Greystone Inn at West Hamilton. It became known as Highway 102 and later Cootes Drive. It remains the “New Highway” to me.
As a ten year old I remember riding my bike down to watch the big green chain-driven Mack trucks haul wet sand, gravel, crushed stone and finally hot-mixed asphalt for the surface. Each ingredient has its own particular smell. Wet sand has a musty smell; gravel and crushed stone a dry and dusty odour and asphalt a sweet tar-like smell that has never changed through the decades. Added to those aromas was the constant smell of diesel fumes.
It was the first four-lane highway around. It was built, not only to ease the traffic flow between Dundas and Hamilton but, I think, also to make some work for unemployed men. These were the difficult days of the depression. I think Albert Cope was the main contractor for the highway construction. He had started his company with a team of horses and a big scoop for moving dirt and gravel from A. to B. Power shovels, dump trucks, back-hoes, bulldozers, rollers, graders and asphalt spreaders were added as the company expanded. I came to know “A. Cope and Sons” in a much more involved way than simply being an observer of their work.
Back in 1946, following my second year in engineering studies, I got a summer job with Cope’s. They had the contract to dig the excavation for an extension to Hamilton Mountain Hospital; which was later renamed Henderson Hospital. My job was, with level and rod, to tell them how deep to drill the holes for blasting out the rock. They would sink tubes of Forcite (a brand of dynamite) into the holes and then set off a mighty blast loosening the rock which was dug out with a backhoe, put in trucks hauled away. We finished the job but the tenders that came in for the building of the hospital addition were so high that the project was abandoned and later the huge hole was filled in. It had collected a lot of water and nobody wanted kids drowning in it. So much for my contribution to Hamilton’s healing ministries. (Years later the hole was re-dug and the hospital addition was built.)
My next project with this company was to work on the re-paving of the Queen Elizabeth Way from Burlington to Oakville. I was to be responsible for making sure that the asphalt was put on at the proper thickness and smooth. It was called “running the grade.” One side of this four-lane highway had been hastily paved for the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in1939 just before the beginning of the war. Some said that the Royal visit was made to strengthen the ties of the Empire because war was imminent. .It had been a hurry-up construction job so their majesties could travel in comfort from Hamilton to Toronto on the highway that had just been named for the Queen. Because it had been a rush job it now needed to be re-done. So we did it. My friend Doug Laing came to work on that project with me as did Harry Law, another buddy, from Dundas who became my brother-in-law. Of course we were all single then. We got the six-thirty bus from Dundas to Hamilton, walked up to Dundurn Park and picked up to ride out on the back of the service truck with the rest of the gang. (Nobody had ever heard of seat-belts yet except for airplanes.) We lived with the smell of hot-mixed asphalt all day long.
Jules “Big Julie” Konya was the foreman of the gang of rakers and shovelers. Except for a few of us, including the operators of the asphalt spreaders, they all conversed in “Big Julie’s” native language. I don’t know what it was although I think it was a Slavic tongue. I know that their lunches were much more interesting and aromatic than mine. Now the asphalt spreaders and the rollers needed to be serviced throughout the day with water, gasoline and diesel fuel. The service truck would drive along the grassy shoulder beside the road providing these necessities to the machines as needed. At one point the shoulder was blocked so the service truck turned and drove up the gently sloping bank and along under the trees and down again. Alas! All of us had put our lunches under the shade of those trees and when the service truck came back down to the shoulder he left behind a dozen squashed lunch buckets with chunks of thermos glass, exotic meat sandwiches and fruit all mangled into a great mess. The air became blue with threats of violence and foreign-sounding oaths. The driver of the service truck drove off in a hurry and asked to be transferred to another job.
Another event, which was also an “alas,” took place because, as we paved one side of the four-lane highway, the traffic had to be re-routed to the other side. That meant that traffic was reduced to single lanes. There were signs to instruct the drivers about the switch. There was also a flagman to see that traffic ran smoothly. Because things usually went well without any help from the flagman he used to take naps under the trees during the day and let the signs do the work. Suddenly there was a shout from one of the men, “Boss coming!” Still a bit dozy, the flagman leaped up from his nap and charged out into the traffic waving his flag. He was on the job! Yes sir! The first car screeched to a stop to avoid hitting the flagman. The car behind plowed into the rear of the first car and the beautiful ring on the hood ornament went flying through the air. We could soon see fluid pouring from the radiator of a brand new Buick. You remember the big Buick Roadmaster with the four port-holes along the side of the hood? That hood was well crunched. In disgust the driver told us that the car had exactly sixteen miles on it. He had just bought it in Hamilton. We pushed that brand new Buick to the side of the road. I don’t remember who called a tow truck or how the car got moved away. But the paving went on. When I smell hot-mix asphalt being laid, I think sometimes of that poor soul with sixteen miles on his brand new Buick and I wonder how that all ended.
During my year out of college, I was sent to “run the grade” on the reconstruction of Highway 59 which runs between Delhi and Norwich in the heart of tobacco country. (Now a lot of those farmers are growing peanuts and soy beans.) We had to remove curves, reduce hills, widen bridges and repave the road. There was hot-mixed asphalt again, and that distinctive smell. We lived all week in the little hotel in Otterville. It’s about as big a town as the name suggests. Each evening at seven, we would quit work and the dump trucks would be lined up in front of the hotel as we went in for supper and another evening of not much to do.
I learned something about priorities concerning trucks on a construction job. The master mechanic told the drivers, “If you think something is wrong with your truck, bring it in right away and we’ll get it fixed.” The superintendent of the job protested. “Never mind if you think you’ve got trouble with your truck, drive her ’til she quits.” The master mechanic and the superintendent, each with their differing priorities, were often at each other’s throats over how to treat the vehicles.
Those were good times, workin’ on the highway. Now, years later, when I drive by a highway construction job and they are laying a new surface, I slow down and take in the smells of diesel fumes and hot black asphalt being spread. It brings back good memories..