ArticlesHistory & Heritage

38 Hours to Montreal

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

Editor’s Note:

Author, historian, genealogist Dan Buchanan recently released his second book, 38 Hours to Montreal, chronicling Governor General Charles Poulett Thomson’s mad dash from the capital of Upper Canada to the capital of Lower Canada.

Following the success of Murder in the Family: The Doctor King Story, a true story of Dan’s ancestor who was the only person executed in Northumberland County, the author turned from true crime to politics. With his trademark accuracy and attention to detail, Dan takes readers with him along the route, telling the tale of the winter ride in 1840.

Dan’s love of history and writing is evident, as is his inherent commitment to the craft. It is much more than just a chance to tell a story, although his talent for that is obvious. “I believe if you are able-bodied and able-minded, you owe it to society to make the best of your resources to build upon the society that made you,” he shared. “Everyone has a path. I make myself part of history. It’s not unique to my heritage, of course, but I make it my own, in my own way.”

Dan kindly shared with CQL readers the Governor General’s ride through the Quinte area, in the stagecoach owned and driven by William Weller, of considerable local fame.

Excerpt from 38 Hours to Montreal © Dan Buchanan.

A Road Trip in 1840

William Weller was in a big hurry as he swung the two-horse team to the right in front of Simon Kellogg’s tavern at the corner of Main and Prince Edward Street in Brighton. He encouraged the team to pick up speed as they galloped along the Kingston Road which, in 1840, followed more or less the same route as Number 2 Highway today.

The fellow reclining in the back of the sleigh was also in a big hurry. Governor General Charles Poulett Thomson had spent three months passing major reform legislation through the Parliament of Upper Canada in Toronto and now his bosses in London were anxious for word of his success along the same lines in Montreal. There was also the promise of a peerage, just maybe, if the Queen approved.

Both men were not the type to wait around if things needed doing, so a contract was drawn up and Mr. Weller signed on to drive all the way to Montreal in under 38 hours – or forfeit his fee! Most folks thought it was an outrageous idea. Nobody had ever driven that far that fast. But they would also grin and say, “If anyone can do it, Mr. Weller can!”

Oh, and there was something else. A wager was placed on Mr. Weller’s success in meeting the terms of the contract. The amount was 1,000 pounds! That was a lot of money in 1840 and we can expect it acted, as intended, as a strong motivator.

The travellers had departed from Beverly House in Toronto at 7 a.m. Monday morning February 17, 2021 and galloped through Cobourg at around 11. They stopped to change horses every 15 miles, most recently at the Grafton Inn and then again at Proctor Inn, at Huff Road west of Brighton. The next stop would be just before the covered bridge over the Trent River. They would then stop for an hour at the Mansion House Hotel in Belleville, to rest their bones and enjoy the only meal for a day and half.

As the sleigh sped through Smithfield on the way to Trent Port, Governor General Thomson may have contemplated the daunting task awaiting him in Montreal. The Mackenzie Rebellion was only two years past and nerves were still very raw, extreme partisan positions being the normal manner of discourse. Lord Durham had been and gone, providing his Durham Report with recommendations for changes to the governance of Upper and Lower Canada. British gentlemen could not fathom why normally peaceful Canadians had actually taken up arms against the crown, but they were intent on preventing it from happening again.

Of course, that meant curbing the power of the elite families, the so-called Family Compact. Charles Thomson had been appointed as Governor General and sent to the Canadian colonies with specific instructions. There would be a union of Upper and Lower Canada, elimination of lifetime tenures, separation of judicial and political systems, and the creation of what they called department-style government. The union would be a dud, but the other reforms were critical to modernizing the government, preparing the ground for responsible government a decade later and then, finally, the big push for a federal union and Confederation. But, one step at a time.

Mr. Thomson had stunned the legislators in Toronto with his deep command of financial matters and a bitingly sharp logic that tore their conventional arguments to shreds. Conservative members saw the writing on the wall as soon as they encountered this very different Governor General. Here was no tired, jaded, half-retired general with medals dangling and little grasp of modern affairs. This man could hand out goodies one moment and get you to agree to give up your old life the next. Many powerful men in Toronto were extremely happy to see the back of the Governor General. And good riddance!

Up on the bench, Mr. Weller was in his element. He had driven this road so many times in the last decade and more. He knew every hill and valley, every bridge, mud hole, and crazy turn. Of course, in 1840, there were no culverts or overpasses, not even gravel roads, except the very unusual and extremely expensive stretch from Napanee to Kingston that had been macadamized just a year before. Most roads were plain old dirt, following the lay of the land and subject to the weather in a way we can’t imagine today.

In fact, the worst mud hole between Toronto and Kingston was just east of Wicklow, known as Herriman Hill. A unique type of soil along the north side of Nathaniel Herriman’s farm, around where Knight’s Appleden is today, kept stage drivers and teamsters on their toes. Once it got wet, this piece of road turned into gumbo that sucked in wagon wheels and horses’ hooves in equal measure. The old term “carrying a rail” came from this era and this kind of spot as passengers, no matter how expensive their clothes, were expected to get out and help. Find a fence rail along the road and stick it under a wheel, and pry for all you are worth. Such were the joys of travel in the early days.

One might ask, with all these difficulties along the way, how could Mr. Weller meet the terms of his contract? How could he cover the 376 miles from Toronto to Montreal, changing horses 24 times, avoiding all the pitfalls and risks of stagecoach travel? There are many answers. First, it was February, so the frost was still in the ground, keeping the dirt roads relatively solid. Second, there were no blizzards during the trip. The weather had turned mild a few days earlier, melting most of the snow, leaving a fairly smooth passage in most places.

There is more to it than that. Mr. Weller was a very detail-oriented businessman and had worked hard for a decade to build a system to support efficient stagecoach travel. He knew every tavern and hotel owner along the line and had arrangements with them that brought in customers and helped them stay in business. Dozens of horses had to be raised and trained on farms along the road, with efforts to improve the breeding and the feed to result in more reliable engines for the system. Many travel horror stories of the time include drunken and abusive stage drivers and Mr. Weller improved on this by hiring carefully, paying decently, and treating all employees with respect.

Besides all this, William Weller was known as one of the most genial and pleasant men to deal with. This would not hurt at all when he sent messengers down the road before the trip, asking for two-horse teams to be ready at a time and place, to allow for very quick changes. It’s not hard to imagine the excitement people felt at the prospect of helping Mr. Weller in this enterprise. Every bit of planning and positive attitude would contribute to success.

A covered bridge had been built across the Trent River in 1834, replacing the ferry service that had run across the river for several decades. The new bridge was a marvel of its time, with an open area at the west end, including a draw bridge for boats to pass. The eastern two-thirds of the bridge was covered, like a barn, keeping travellers out of the weather, at least for a few yards. Mr. Weller and other stagecoach drivers would have welcomed the quick and safe crossing but would be extra careful with the horses as they crossed. Some horses might be spooked by the loud noise of their own hooves on the planks reverberating around inside the enclosed section.

In the end, Mr. Weller would meet the terms of his contract and the Governor General would successfully pass his legislation and gain a peerage to boot. Mr. Weller was happy to collect his fee at the end of the trip, as well as 1,000 pounds from the wager. Add a fine gold watch as a gift from the Governor General and Mr. Weller had a very successful trip.

Not bad for a day and a half’s work!