Manitoba History: A. C. Emmett and the Development of Good Roads in Manitoba

by Karen Nicholson
Historic Resources Branch, Winnipeg

Number 27, Spring 1994

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The creation of pathways, wide enough to accommodate a four-wheeled vehicle, was not essential to the early settlement of Manitoba. It was the waterways that brought the first Europeans into the heart-land of the country. At the junction of two major waterways, the Red and the Assiniboine rivers, the first European settlement developed. The inhabitants there beat paths from the fur-trade posts to their homes. Though the first roadways were only wide enough to accommodate a person on foot or horseback, they widened through usage. The early communities in the heart of central British North America were self-sustaining, and therefore had very little need of roads to communicate with other settlements. Later, as trade channels opened up, centres of manufacturing and trans-shipment were created such as St. Paul and later Winnipeg. Soon supply routes were created to link these centres, and trails radiated from Fort Garry to such places as Portage la Prairie, Pembina, Fort Ellice and Fort Edmonton. Many of these trails followed the traditional pathways created by Native peoples and fur traders.

The first attempt to construct a road connecting the isolated settlement of Fort Garry with eastern Canada began in 1857 when S. J. Dawson was sent to survey a road between Red River and Lake Superior. Work began in 1868 on the Fort Garry end of the survey but the road was still incomplete by the time the Wolseley Expedition was sent to deal with the political trouble at Red River in 1870. The Dawson Road, as it was called, had been constructed across the open prairie to Ste. Anne des Chenes, but when it entered the shield country, east of that point, construction became immensely more difficult and the road to Lake of the Woods was never completed to passable standards. In later years however, the Dawson Road would become the basis of a Provincial Road.

In 1870 when the Province of Manitoba was created, there were 700 miles of trails within the province. According to the first annual Public Works report:

The opening up of the principal roads in the Province next engaged the attention of the Government and the following were proceeded with without delay: The roads leading from Pembina to Winnipeg, from Winnipeg to the Indian settlement, Lower Fort Garry, and Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie. All these were placed in a state of repair and the Government also established a road on the east side of the Red River from Riviere a la Seine to where the ferry was at that time. [1]

Between 1870 and 1880 the cost of road construction was borne entirely by the provincial government. But emphasis in this period was aimed at railway construction, rather than roads, since steam travel was far superior and faster than horse and buggy. In 1880 all the road allowances within the province were placed under the jurisdiction of a rapidly increasing number of municipal governments. Lacking the tax-base to finance improvement of these roads, most municipalities relied on a system of statute labour for their maintenance. Under this system each landowner was required by law to spend a certain number of days each year working on the roadways and road allowances, supplying their own equipment if possible. This resulted in a very uneven system of road maintenance.

By the time the railway age had reached Manitoba there was an increasing reliance on the “iron horse” for communication, trade and commerce. Only local roads, linking settlers with a service centre and grain loading facility, were necessary. Most farmers could travel ten miles in a day by horse and buggy to carry their grain to town, pick up supplies and return home by nightfall. However, the dirt trails they travelled were often mired in mud and quite impassable.

Bridging of major streams remained an expense that could only be provided for by borrowing money. Small streams had to be forded, often resulting in deaths such as the drowning of a mother and her two children in May 1912 when she attempted to drive a buggy through the swollen Pipestone Creek. [2]

Old bridge near Dauphin.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The age of automobiles changed people’s expectations of roads; a good road now meant one that could be used even after a rain storm! Although the first Canadian automobile was built in 1867, the Canadian automobile manufacturing industry did not officially begin until the establishment of the Ford Motor Company of Canada Ltd. in 1904. [3] By 1913 there were 50,000 motor vehicles in Canada. [4] While most of these were operating in eastern Canada, there were enough automobile owners in southern Manitoba, principally in Winnipeg, to warrant the establishment of automobile associations and government legislation to deal with their needs. A. C. Emmett was poised to become the official spokesman for automobile owners.

Born in England in 1872, Arthur Coates Emmett began his life-long love affair with the horseless carriage as a young lad when he served as the flag boy for the owner of a coke-burning vehicle. This duty required him to walk or run in front of the automobile, waving a red flag to warn pedestrians and horses that danger was approaching. [5] In 1896, when the red flag requirement was lifted, Emmett, by then an automobile owner himself, celebrated by setting off on a 52-mile trip to Brighton, which took 8.5 hours. [6]

A. C. Emmett, 1953.
Source: Arthur Emmett

Emmett emigrated to Canada in 1902 and spent a few years attempting to farm near Brandon before moving to Winnipeg in 1904 to work at the first automobile garage in Winnipeg, located at the corner of Ellice and Hargrave. One of the first fifty men in Winnipeg to own an automobile, Emmett was instrumental in the organization of the Winnipeg Automobile Club on March 18, 1904. It was the first club of its kind in Canada. In 1906 Emmett wrote “A Review of the Horseless Age in Winnipeg” which examined the twenty types of cars offered for sale, at prices ranging from $750 - $4200, pointing out that the 35% duty imposed by the government made these cars more expensive than those in the United States. [7] Thus began Emmett’s regular feature in the Manitoba Free Press, which suggested motor trip routes for automobilers, offered motoring tips, and promoted the work of the Winnipeg Automobile Club. The Club issued reports on road conditions and advised members on the best routes to follow. Later, as secretary of the Winnipeg Automobile Club and its successor, the Manitoba Motor League, and as automobile editor of the Free Press, Emmett began to prepare road guides or route maps. With the marked highway system of today, it is difficult to visualize what it must have been like to set out across the prairie, on dirt roads, with no markings to tell one where to turn. The series of auto routes Emmett devised were color-coded and based on markings placed by club members on anything available along the road-side (not unlike the system used today by snowmobile clubs on trails maintained by their organizations). First published in book form in 1913 and later updated, the auto route maps were very popular. [8] Free Press reporter, E. Cora Hind, thanked Emmett for making her travels across rural Manitoba easier, saying, “the grateful salaams of the crop inspector to A. C. Emmett for his automobile road guide. It is a real treasure.” [9] But color-coding highway routes only identified roads for the motorists to follow; they did not guarantee trouble free driving across roads described by Emmett as pure quagmire.

In an attempt to interest people in rural Manitoba in improving the state of roads outside Winnipeg, the automobile organization worked to establish the Good Roads Association in 1909. [10] This group, consisting of volunteer representatives from various municipalities, urged the provincial government to appoint a Commissioner of Highways. It was hailed as a major accomplishment in 1910 when Archibald McGillvray was appointed the first Commissioner of Highways, and took a leading position with the Good Roads Association. [11] This marked a major turning point in the development of proper roads in Manitoba. Under pressure from the Association, who had reached the conclusion that municipal governments could not bear the financial burden of creating a highway system in Manitoba, the Roblin government in 1912 passed the first highways’ legislation.

A Winnipeg Auto Club rally at Boissevain, 1908.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

An Act respecting the Improvement of Highways provided that $200,000 be set aside to aid municipalities in the construction of major public highways. A grant of two-thirds of the cost of such work was paid to a municipality able to prove that a certain road was of public importance. In addition, the government undertook to guarantee the debentures necessary to help the municipality raise their one-third share. The first highway created under this legislation was a new road between Selkirk and Winnipeg, begun in 1913. [12]

The other legislation passed in 1912 was the Good Roads Act. Under this act the government could guarantee the debentures of any municipality undertaking the construction and improvement of a system of roads within its boundaries. This would prove to be the basis of the development of improved market roads in various municipalities across the province. The first municipality to subscribe to the Good Roads program was Wallace, near Virden.

Portion of the “Blue Route,” Winnipeg to Souris, 1922.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Transportation - Roads & Highways #6.

These two acts marked the first committal by Statute on the part of the Province to assist the municipalities in contending with the general problem of road building. By 1914, it had become apparent that such assistance was inadequate in enabling the municipalities to met the demand for better roads. Consequently, in 1914 the two acts were repealed and a new Act, The Good Roads Act was passed. It provided more generous financial commitments by the government: one-third of the cost of earth market roads and one-half of the cost of gravelled market roads. The costs of main highways through the municipalities were two-thirds covered by the Province. While this legislation was amended at various times, it formed the basis of government policy on road construction and maintenance until 1943 when it was superseded by The Public Works Act, which in turn was replaced by the Highways and Transportation Department Act in 1965.

The lobbying efforts of A. C. Emmett and the Manitoba Motor League, (which had been reorganized in 1914 when the Winnipeg Automobile Association and the Motor Country Club combined to pay Emmett a salary) were instrumental in passing this legislation. Throughout his lifetime, Emmett remained an active member of the Good Roads Association, which most municipalities joined in order to benefit from the assistance offered by the association in preparing better roads.

The Good Roads Board, which administered the Good Roads Act, consisted of the Highway Commissioner and three members chosen by the Association. The Board relied on the services of engineers, surveyors and inspectors, officers and clerks to undertake its mandate: responsibility for establishing standards for construction and maintenance of highways across the province, and for promoting road building across Manitoba. Municipal governments consulted with the Board on the construction, repairs, alteration, and maintenance of roads under their jurisdiction.

Some sixty-five meetings to explain how the Act worked were held throughout the province in 1914. Speakers at these meetings were the three members of the Board, C. E. Ivens of Virden, S. R. Henderson of Kildonan and G. R. Willis of Boissevain, as well as A. C. Emmett, who usually presented a view of highway requirements from the motorists’ perspective. [13]

While the creation of better market roads in the municipalities under the Good Roads Board benefitted the rural residents, motorists still experienced a startling discrepancy in road conditions as they attempted to travel across the province. Emmett, who in 1918 became the secretary manager of the newly reorganized and incorporated Manitoba Motor League, began to see the need for provincial highway routes which a motorist could follow across the province from east to west or north to south. Writing that in “no part of the province have we any connected good road from one end to the other,” he began a campaign to remedy this condition of affairs, “a campaign for the institution of a system of main trunk highways to be built and maintained by a Central Good Roads Board.” [14] The first of such routes, Emmett thought, could be built from Winnipeg to Kenora, thus opening up the lake country to vacationers, while at the same time providing employment. [15] At a Good Roads banquet held in January 1919, Emmett presented the idea to his colleagues in the Association. [16]

Winnipeg Free Press cartoon depicting A. C. Emmett and his many affiliations, no date.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press

In 1921 Emmett actually created a plan for a provincial trunk highway system, a plan that would later be adopted by the government. [17] Published in a twenty-page pocket-sized booklet, the proposal advocated a complete system of Trunk High-ways, covering 2400 miles. Of these, the Motor League suggested that a 1600-mile plan of carefully selected roads was essential in maximizing service to the province. In promoting the plan, Emmett stressed the impact of good roads on colonization, land values, social conditions, tourism, and schools. Told by the provincial government that if the Manitoba Motor League really wanted such a system it would have to convince the people of Manitoba, Emmett began travelling across the province, “drumming up” support for the idea. [18] More than 10,000 signatures were garnered in support of the plan. Later he organized a deputation from the Manitoba Motor League, the Winnipeg Board of Trade, the Canadian Manufacturers Association, the Canadian Credit Men’s Association, the Rotary Club, the Brandon Board of trade, the Manitoba Good Roads Association, and the Union of Manitoba Municipalities, requesting that the provincial government build trunk roads. As spokesman for the group, Emmett requested more concerted leadership from the government, suggesting that funds for such road construction could come from Motor Vehicles Act registration fees. He estimated the capital expenditure to be five million dollars of which he felt the federal government might contribute two million. [19] The lobbying for provincial trunk highways by the Manitoba Motor League and the Good Roads Association continued until late 1923 when the Minister of Public Works brought down legislation to give the government control of main trunk highways. [20] Unfortunately, the effect of the legislation was limited, only covering two road portions, that between Selkirk and Winnipeg, and Winnipeg and Emerson, and seemed to have little effect upon the condition of even these roads. [21] The Free Press reported in August, 1924 that:

Public opinion has at last been aroused to the necessity of the high-way between Emerson and the City of Winnipeg being put into first class condition, and it may be as well at the present time to glance back over the work that has been done in the past by the Manitoba Motor League and the Manitoba Good Roads Association in an endeavour to secure the adoption of the policy of government control of a trunk highway system. [22]

Since A. C. Emmett was an instrumental member of both these organizations it is easy to discern his guiding hand in the lobbying efforts that culminated in legislation in 1925 that sanctioned the building of approximately 1700 miles of gravel-surfaced Provincial Trunk Highways. [23] The province was aided in this effort by the Canada Highways Act of 1919 which had been amended in 1924 to give each province $80,000 each year, for a five-year period, to construct highways. By June 2, 1926 the Manitoba Government had received $1,277,751.34 in federal assistance to construct highways. [24]

The Manitoba Motor League’s Booster Tour Car, 1915.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The federal government had created this legislation due to the lobbying efforts of the Canadian Good Roads Association which was formed in 1914. Members of the Canadian Goods Roads Association included the deputy ministers responsible for roads in each province, representatives of provincial Good Roads associations and Motor League groups. Several of the latter owed their existence to A. C. Emmett who had spent time organizing Motor League Clubs in the western provinces. [25] “Ace” Emmett was a member of the Canadian Good Roads Association, until his retirement in 1954, when he was presented with an honorary life membership. [26]

With all these new miles of roadways the Manitoba Motor League, directed by Emmett, proposed a plan for a system of marking provincial trunk highways. As early as 1913, Emmett had devised auto routes across the province which were marked according to colors. Volunteer crews from the Automobile Club had been “supplied with paint, brushes, and stencils (to) cut R(right) and L(left) turns” on trees, fence posts, and whatever was handy along rural roads, the markings coordinating with Emmett’s maps. [27] Based on this color-coding system, Emmett prepared a system for marking Manitoban and Canadian high-ways for a presentation he was to make at the 1920 Canadian Automobile Association meeting in Winnipeg. On the way to the meeting he noticed the numbers on the city streetcars and it altered his presentation considerably. After being introduced, Emmett commented:

Gentlemen, you will see that I made elaborate preparations to show you our highway marking system but now I find that this preparation was unnecessary and the model can therefore be neglected and my prepared address can go into the wastepaper basket. I will give you the shortest address you have ever heard, viz: Number your highways. [28]

The suggestion was immediately adopted by the meeting. George Stevens, Wisconsin Highway Commissioner, was a guest at the convention and Wisconsin became the first jurisdiction in North America to put the plan into practice. [29] The Canadian Good Roads Association followed suit at its conference on 9-10 December 1925 when it adopted a uniform system of marking highways. [30] It was not until 1926, however, under pressure from the Manitoba Good Roads Association, that the Manitoba government agreed to number all provincial trunk highways. [31] A diamond shaped sign, lemon yellow and fifteen inches square, of stamped metal, having a black buffalo in the top half of the marker and the black number in a circle in the lower half, was created and placed at one-half mile intervals on major routes. The Good Roads Association encouraged the municipalities to mark their major market routes in the same manner.

During the development of the automobile age in Manitoba, A. C. (Ace) Emmett was a guiding force in the creation of suitable conditions for the operation of “horseless carriages.” Beginning with his early connection with the Winnipeg Automobile Club in 1904, through to his management of the Manitoba Motor League from its inception to his retirement in 1954 at the age of 81, “Ace” Emmett realized that a system of decent roads, essential for the growth of motor vehicle utilization, was dependent upon the actions of the Provincial Government. When he arrived in Manitoba, responsibility for “pathways” still lay heavy on the shoulders of municipal councils, who lacked the funds to respond to the need for well-maintained, pot-hole free roads. By the time Emmett retired, through leadership and lobbying, he had overseen the implementation of many of his ideas, including the transfer of responsibility for highways to the Provincial Government. Manitoba had a Department of Highways which constructed and maintained a marked, numbered system of north-south, east-west highways, a grid work of municipal market roads created under the Good Roads Program, and a knowledgeable public licensed to operate motor vehicles on these roads, with assistance from the Manitoba Motor League. While government legislation and the Good Roads Board had made it possible for these roads to be constructed, Emmett had been a strong lobbying force throughout, as well as an influential member of both the Canadian and Manitoba Good Roads Associations.

When A. C. Emmett died in 1959 at the age of 86, the Toronto Globe and Mail hailed him as the “man credited with drawing up western Canada’s first road maps,” and with “organizing the system of numbering highways,” an example followed by many other countries. [32]


1. “History of Road Development in the Province of Manitoba,” 1 March 1937, Province of Manitoba, Department of Public Works, Good Roads Board; p. 5.

2. Elkhorn Mercury, 9 May 1912.

3. Canadian Encyclopedia.

4. Ibid.

5. Winnipeg Free Press, 12 May 1959.

6. Ibid.

7. “It Happened Here” by Edith Paterson, Winnipeg Free Press, 21 June 1969.

8. Manitoba Motorist, 1983.

9. Manitoba Free Press, 16 August 1922.

10. Manitoba Free Press, 23 November 1923.

11. Manitoba Good Roads Association, P 4654, P.A.M.

12. Ibid.

13. Road Commissioner to Minister of Public Works, W. H. Montague, 25 March 1914. Highway Commissioner Letter Book 1910-1916, Manitoba Public Works RG19 D31, Provincial Archives of Manitoba.

14. Manitoba Motorist, November 1922, p. 4.

15. Manitoba Free Press, 4 January 1919.

16. Manitoba Free Press, 23 January 1919.

17. Winnipeg Free Press, 27 July 1983.

18. “A. C. Emmett Dies, West’s Auto Pioneer,” Winnipeg Free Press, 12 May 1959.

19. Manitoba Free Press, 19 February 1919.

20. Manitoba Free Press, 9 November 1923.

21. Manitoba Free Press, 11 August 1924.

22. Ibid.

23. “History of Road Development in Manitoba,” 1 March 1937, Province of Manitoba, Department of Public Works, Good Roads, Board, Provincial Archives of Manitoba.

24. Deputy Minister’s Files, Department of Public Works, Provincial Archives of Manitoba.

25. Hugh Durnford and Glen Baechler, Cars of Canada, McClelland and Stewart Ltd., Toronto, 1973, p. 293.

26. Winnipeg Free Press, 12 May 1959.

27. “Good Roads and How they got that way,” Manitoba Motorist, November-December 1964.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Deputy Minister’s Files, Department of Public Works, Provincial Archives of Manitoba.

31. Manitoba Free Press, 15 May 1926.

32. Toronto Globe and Mail, 13 May 1959.

Page revised: 1 December 2018