October 28th, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 42
Looking Back - John Kinnear
A Mechanic, a Journalist & a 1912 Reo Motorcar
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Photos courtesy of John Kinnear
Thomas Wilby pours water from the Atlantic into the Pacific at Port Alberni
Part of the Crowsnest Pass Municipal Heritage Inventory Project process includes the crafting of what is known as a context paper for each community. It is an overview of how and why the community developed the way it did and is a study of various elements in that development like religion, health, spiritual life and business and industry. While reviewing the recently released draft copy for Bellevue I found the following intriguing comment under the Highways section. “Before the current highway was constructed over the Crowsnest Pass, the preferred route was a rough, and not always passable, trail over the Phillipps Pass. This trail was cut through the Elk Valley in 1877, and used for several years to drive cattle from British Columbia, and by motor vehicles as early as 1910. In 1912, the Crowsnest Pass was used by Thomas Wilby and Fonce Haney as they drove a Canadian-made REO Motor Company sedan from Halifax to Victoria.” Of course you know I just had to dig deeper into that last statement!

This cross Canada trip coast-to-coast was principally made to promote a “sturdy” car referred to as Reo the Fifth as it was the fifth car that Ransom E. Olds (Reo) had designed. Olds would eventually use his name to launch yet another well known design, the Oldsmobile. Thomas Wilby was a very British free-lance writer and Fonce Haney was Reo’s head mechanic who had recently moved from America. Wilby had done a promotional trip in the United States the previous year driving from New York to San Diego so he approached the Reo Motor Car Company of Canada with a similar request. Give him a car and a driver and he would promote the reliability of the car and four-wheeled travel across Canada. Reports say Haney and Wilby were a badly mismatched pair and soon grew to loathe each other. Wilby is described as a 45-year-old British snob who when first introduced to Haney in Halifax insisted on being called “sir”. Now isn’t that just ducky.
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Wilby eventually wrote about this trip in a book entitled “A Motor Car Tour Through Canada” which he published in 1914. Not once in its 290 pages did he refer to Haney by name but merely referred to him on only four occasions as “the chauffeur”. In the only picture in the book that Haney should have appeared, he was airbrushed, in what they call Soviet style, out of the picture. Poof, gone. A Stalin specialty. Haney wrote a very bleak reading travel diary himself in which he portrayed Wilby as a landlocked William Bligh and made comments like: “Captain is getting worse.” Wilby refused to ever lend a hand in the dozens of times a tire needed repair or the hundreds of times they had to be pushed out of the mud. I tell you what. If it had been me driving Wilby would have wound up in Crowsnest Lake and I would have kept on going.

The 52 day trip did not officially qualify as the first cross-Canada road trip as there just were not enough roads to cover the country back then. They had to load the car onto a train from North Bay, Ont. to Sudbury, onto a schooner to cross Lake Superior to Port Arthur (Thunder Bay) and again on a train to Selkirk just outside of Winnipeg. I found an amusing anecdote in the many stories written about this trip and it has to do with its very end. It was written by Alan MacEacheran, a history teacher at the University of Western Ontario. It reads: “When Mr. Wilby and Mr. Haney came to the end of their cross-Canada drive in 1912, they found the (now-merged) B.C. communities of Alberni and Port Alberni arguing as to where the proposed national highway should start. The two towns were stealing the “Canadian Highway” marker from one another at night, until finally the Alberni townspeople tied a bull terrier to it.”

In our area, as the context paper indicated, they bounced up and over the Continental Divide at Phillips Pass and arrived at Michel by noon on October 3rd. According to the Blairmore Enterprise they were “accompanied through from Burmis to Coleman by A.W. Robbins, our local garageman, and from Coleman through to Fernie he was piloted by W.H. Murr, proprietor of the Coleman Hotel. After stopping at Cranbrook they headed for Yahk where they discovered there was no road and wound up driving down the railroad track to Kitchener (about half way between Yahk and Creston) before they got to a road again. They both agreed that if a train came they would leap to safety and sacrifice the car.
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For the record the first car to travel through the Crowsnest Pass (the first pass in the Rockies capable of being traversed by an automobile) was done by Dr. F.W. Green of Cranbrook in September of 1910. Apparently there were two bridges out east of Michel and they had to ford Michel Creek twice. It wasn’t until 1923 with the completion of the Banff-Windermere Highway (Highway 93) that another way across the Rockies existed.

The Reo motor car Haney and Wilby bounced across Canada in could do a whopping 60 km/hr and had a 35 HP four-cylinder engine (hand crank start) with three drive gears and reverse. It was priced at $1600 and equipped with a top and top cover, windshield, curtains, a reserve acetylene gas tank (for the headlights) and a speedometer.

In 1997 Lorne Findlay an automotive historian celebrated the 85th anniversary of this trans-Canada trip by driving his restored 1912 Reo (same make, model and year as the original) across Canada. They never got one flat tire on the Trans-Canada Highway which was finally completed in 1970. He travelled with John Nicol, a newspaper columnist who published a book in 1999 on the trip called The All Red Route. Findlay retraced Haney and Wilby’s route starting on the same day and ending on the same day that they did. I’m bettin’ Nicol was a lot better company for Findlay than Wilby was for Haney!
October 28th ~ Vol. 85 No. 42
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