DREAMSCAPES Fall/Winter 2017
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DR. DOOLITTLE AND OUR OPEN ROAD
 
(2017 - Fall/Winter Issue)

Writer: ALLAN LYNCH



Canadians have the ability to drive coast to coast because of Perry E. Doolittle.

Doolittle had a passion for automobiles and believed in the need for a national highway across Canada as an alternative to the rail system, which in the first part of the 20th century only connected major cities. Just as we have the Fathers of Confederation, who came together to create the country, Doolittle’s passion, vision and pioneering spirit earned him the title of the Father of the Trans-Canada Highway.

A MONUMENTAL JOURNEY

Doolittle was a real pioneer. On September 8, 1925, he backed the rear tires of a Model T the Ford Motor Company provided him into the Atlantic Ocean at Lower Economy, Nova Scotia, and set out on a 7,700-kilometre drive to Vancouver, where he wet his tires in the Pacific Ocean. That symbolic wetting of tires established a standard for all who came after him on a transcontinental quest, whether they’re running, walking or rolling wheelchairs.

The difference is that when Doolittle set out he had very few roads at his disposal. The few that existed were disconnected dirt patches scattered across the national landscape. A grainy video compiled from film taken of his trek shows a raw, unbroken wilderness. In some places he sped along a single lane cut through a forest with workers still shovelling dirt onto the path. Other places had nothing but fallen trees on a rocky ridge to provide an indication of the way west. By the time Doolittle hit the Prairies just enough snow had swept in to turn what passed for roads into axle-sinking muddy ruts that he plied through. The images are so stark you can feel the cold.

The real blessing on his quest were the places with no roads, paths or cuts, just railways. For those, the tires on his car were changed to flanged wheels that allowed him to smoothly motor along the railway tracks. He rode the rails for 1,404 kilometres of his passage to the Pacific. Put together, that would equal the distance between Ottawa and Halifax or Lloydminster and Vancouver.

Through all this Doolittle is shown wearing a suit, high-collared shirt, tie and bowler hat. A few places, like Calgary and Winnipeg, had pavement, which must have made the rural muddy tracks he faced disheartening. But he persisted and arrived in Victoria 39 days after leaving Halifax. Amazingly, and in spite of the terrain, he only had four flats!  

Doolittle’s vision for a uniform standard for highways from sea to sea is why the Canadian Council of Independent Laboratories (CCIL) used the sesquicentennial to raise his profile. CCIL members are scientists who investigate, monitor and test new products and infrastructure for safety. So Doolittle’s vision for a uniform highway across Canada is a natural tie-in to their mandate.

In July 2017, in recognition of Doolittle’s vision, the CCIL presented plaques to three of his great-grandchildren: Nathaniel Thomas from Buffalo, New York; Ruth Young from Pennsylvania; and Meredith Ingraham from Cape Breton.

THE VISIONARY

Doolittle made his living as a Toronto physician. While Dr. Doolittle may be an unfortunate name for a real historical figure, he is central to Canada’s car culture. He was one of the first automobile owners in Canada and the first physician to make house calls. When not practising medicine, he organized motorists. In 1903, he helped found the Toronto Automobile Club. He was elected president of the Ontario Motor League in 1914 and Canadian Automobile Club in 1920. Such was his love of the automobile that a newspaper wrote “the highway is his natural abode.”

While Canada’s Dr. Doolittle didn’t talk to animals, Thomas says he did keep rabbits. Until several rabbits escaped from their pens and ate his rubber tires. They were released to their own devices, away from his garage.

Thomas said of his great-grandfather: “He had quite an elaborate basement laboratory and was always experimenting with the latest in medical electrotherapeutic devices. It was a place with big dials and gizmos spinning with everything hooked up to the power grid so that it was full of whirling copper balls and arching electric shocks—like a movie set.”

Young told CCIL members, “We’d been told he made this epic journey across Canada in a car.” Then learning there were no roads she added, “This man didn’t take no for an answer. He was making this trip through all kinds of conditions and he went to great extents to see his goal fulfilled.”

Doolittle began campaigning for a national highway system in the 1920s. He died in 1933. Construction on the Trans-Canada Highway began in 1949 but wasn’t completed until 1971.

In typically Canadian fashion, Dr. Doolittle isn’t found in many reference materials. But he continues to impact the lives of all who drive or ride in a vehicle in Canada. He not only spurred the creation of the Trans-Canada Highway, it was his idea that we all drive on the right side of the road. (British Columbia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland all drove on the left while the rest of Canada drove on the right.) And he insisted that stop signs be implemented.

As a transportation visionary, Doolittle might have embraced Bryan Adams’ lyrics:

“Life is an open road,

It’s the best story never told,

It’s an endless sky, it’s the deepest sea

Life is an open road to me.”

And a safe, drivable road thanks to Dr. Doolittle.

 
 
 
 
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