Skip to content

When Highway 11 was Old Ferguson Highway

This week Back Roads Bill takes us to what Highway 11 was like when it was a seasonal road and you had to check in before using it

Because of COVID we may have more time for the precious few hours that we once called “the Sunday drive,” restrictions are waning.

A “Sunday drive” is a North American notion, typically taken for pleasure or leisure on the Sabbath, usually in the afternoon. It is an act of randomness.

During the Sunday drive, there is typically no destination and no rush. It is that time of the year when we are waiting for the snow so other activities can begin. But in the interim take to the back roads, the leaves are down and you can see a great deal more.

New Ontario

We are thankful the four-laning of Highway 11 south to Toronto is now history and the work continues on Highway 69. The completion of Highway 11 to North Bay was a long time coming.

Driving northwards beyond North Bay is another story. It seems the highway remains a work in progress; mostly widening and the redesign of hills and curves.

At the Latchford information centre, north of Temagami there is a commemorative plaque acknowledging the grand opening of Highway 11 North.

"In 1925 the Ontario government began construction of this 260-mile trunk road between Cochrane and North Bay. The road was intended to link the rapidly developing mining and agricultural communities of 'New Ontario' with the province's southern regions. (That’s where the craft beer name comes from – The New Ontario Brewing Co. on Seymour St. and Hwy. 11/17 in North Bay.; try the ‘Bear Runner.’)," reads the plaque.

"Several sections of rebuilt local roads were incorporated into this gravel highway and the final link was completed through the dense Timagami [sic] forest The highway was officially opened on July 2, 1927, and named in honour of the Hon. G. Howard Ferguson, Premier of Ontario (1923-30) and long-time promoter of northern development. It immediately became an important access route to northern settlements and tourist regions."

Although it was named for the man who campaigned to the premiership on the promise of building the road, the Ferguson Highway was originally planned as a trunk road to connect the communities of southern Ontario to North Bay. In 1919, Premier of Ontario Ernest Charles Drury created the Department of Public Highways however, the new department's jurisdiction did not extend north of the

Severn River and the roadway were maintained by the Department of Northern Development, much similar to the present Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. Drury was Ferguson’s predecessor.

But in the beginning, the Ferguson Highway was a quick and cheap political promise to the north. It was a response to the evolution of cars and trucks and an alternative to the railroads. What it really meant was the road wandered from point to point, using the highest ground possible avoiding the myriad of small lakes and wetlands of the Canadian Shield.

Although the Ferguson Highway linked Cochrane and Timmins to North Bay, in reality, the road couldn’t be used for much of the year.

Every spring the freeze and thaw regime swallowed up sections and the rains washed away portions of the gravel roadbed and wooden bridges. Stonemasons were required for permanent bridges and these permanent structures were costly to the Crown. It wasn’t until the 1950s that all of Highway 11 was paved with some form of uniformity.

With the advent of more hard rock blasting and heavy road construction machinery decades of rerouting was initiated.

In fact, it was so precarious that in the formative years of the young highway you had to sign in and register your vehicle and receive a permit to travel northwards.

A toll booth was located just north of Thibeault Hill near Cooks Mill Rd., just north of the truck stops in North Bay. It was open for the summer season only. The birth of the Dionne Quintuplets, May 28, 1934, and society taking vacations spawned the early beginnings of northern Ontario tourism using Hwy. 11 North.


The use of the automobile for the Sunday drive began in the 1920s and 1930s. The idea was that the automobile was not used for commuting or errands, but for pleasure.

There would be no rush to reach any particular destination. Go for a jaunt, you can see “what was” the Ferguson Highway, a little north of Marten River. It is one of the only remaining segments of the original Highway 11 North.

Motorized or non-motorized it is a great jaunt for a Sunday drive, cross-country ski, walk, snowmobile or mountain bike ride or snowshoe excursion.

It is 58 km from North Bay (Airport hill/Hwy. 11 junction) to the Marten River Provincial Park entrance and it is another 11.9 km from there to the Tonomo Lake Road, turn left or west.

At this junction, the stream water flows southwards from Pan Lake on Hwy. 11 to Red Canoe Lake (Olive Lake). The remnants of the Ferguson Highway are found on the 1:50 00 topographic map, ‘Ingall Lake’ – L/13.

Set your odometer or GPS unit. The pipeline compressor station is 2km northwards and as winter arrives you could park here. The old highway is now a seasonal access to camps and cottages, the pipeline, a power corridor and part of a designated snowmobile trail.

It feels like an old road with lots of ups and downs, the road meandering around small wetlands, near lake shorelines and over too many hill crests with blind spots.

Georeferencing a historic photo means you try and stand at the same location where the original photographer stood. At 5.1 kilometres (km) you will be at the location of the historic tourist postcard of the Ferguson Highway. You can’t quite stand exactly where the photographer positioned a tripod as there is a line of mature cedar trees lining the road.

The original vegetation was cleared for the then-new highway. There is a gap and here there is no mistaking the island in the picture on the east side of the postcard and the winding road up the hill in the background. This scenic highway spot was captured some 80 years ago at the southwest arm of Jumping Caribou Lake (N46° 52’ 19.7” W79° 48’ 35.0”).

The road in the photo then winds its way up a hill and down to 5.7 km, to what was once a popular roadside rest stop and bridge, the water leaving Jumping Caribou Lake, flowing southwest to Hangstone Lake. Stop here.

At 7.5 km Tonomo Lake Rd (south section) transitions down a steep hill to Wilson Lake Road (north section), there is a view of Dwy Lake to the west. At 9.0 there is a spring water source; 11.3 Brophy Creek with a view to the east of Waha Lake, take a look at the underpinnings of the original bridge.

At 13.9 you see Christy Lake to the east; at 15 there is an expansive view of Wilson Lake to the west; 16.8, North Milne Lake to the east and at 18.2 you join the newer Highway 11 north.

When you return southwards the present-day highway is 17.7 km in length, paralleling the Ferguson highway to the west; which is 18.2 in length. About one-half of a kilometre difference, but it was all about speed and time and the ever-increasing size of car and truck motors. The highway of today now goes through more than 30 rock cuts of various sizes within the shorter distance; there are no hills with crests or curves to worry about.

On the original Ferguson Highway, the driving speed might have been 40 km/hour during good conditions. What now takes you approximately 12 minutes on Highway 11 would have taken you approximately 40 minutes taking much care and caution.

There is an incomplete section of “Old” Highway 17, the other Trans Canada Highway, north of the “Soo,” near Goulais River. Here is the map for both.

Henry Ford was an advocate of the Sunday drive. He promoted Sunday as a day of activity rather than rest because it led to the sale of cars. Going nowhere but somewhere is important any time you are on the back roads it gives you a sense of peaceful order.

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
Read more

Reader Feedback