Simon James Dawson

Surveyor, Road Builder and Politician

By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas



Dawson is the man that carved a trail though the Northern Ontario and Manitoba wilderness to build the Dawson Road. Simon James Dawson was born June 13, 1818 near Portsoy Scotland. He was the last of ten children born to John Dawson and Anne McDonell. His family immigrated to the Nepean townships near Ottawa in the late 1830s. After experience with surveying and lumber operations in Peterborough, he joined the Dept of Public Works. In 1857 he was appointed to work on the western survey between Lake Superior and Red River.

The head of the survey was George Gladman and the scientific member of the team was Henry Youle Hind. Disputes with Gladman saw Dawson put in charge of the survey while Hind was allowed to run his own scientific expedition. But when Dawson's proposed route was presented in 1859 it seemed too costly and was shelved by the govt of the day. It was not until after confederation that his proposals saw the light of day.


In 1868 Dawson's road was approved and he was put in charge of completing it. News of the Riel uprising in 1869 quickened the pace of construction, which had been slow during 1868. By early 1870 Dawson had over 1,000 men hard at work trying to complete the road so that troops could flow into red River to establish civil controls. Wolseley's troops added 5,000 man-days to the completion of the road as they inched west during early 1870.

The 450-mile Dawson road consisted of three sections. There was a 95-mile strip between Lake of the Woods and Fort Garry. Then 310 miles of lakes, rivers and portages, and finally a 45-mile wagon road to Fort William, now called Thunder Bay. The way was cleared and a series of tree trunks were placed forming a corduroy surface of parallel logs at right angles to those below them. The corduroy surface of ridges would prove a pounding experience for those that would travel it. The Countess of Dufferin remarked that "when we had been knocked about as much as we could bear we got out and walked." Fortunately the Dawson served for a little more than a decade till the railway arrived. It never became a popular route.


When the railway was put through it by passed Fort William much to Dawson's disappointment and he decided to enter politics to fight it. Dawson would become a member of the Ontario legislature and after that the House of Commons. As the member for Algoma, Dawson became an outspoken supporter of Fort William and later of native fishing rights and of bilingualism. He became unpopular in the 1880s and was referred to as an old fossil. Defeated in the early 1890s, he sought but did not obtain a Senate seat.

Dawson, who had never married, died in relative obscurity in Ottawa on Oct 30, 1902.


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