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From Star Highway To Humble Regional Road

Until the late 1940s, such towns and villages as Hawkesbury, Alfred, Plantagenet, L’Orignal, Chute-à-Blondeau were official partners on a travel route that went across Canada, from coast to coast: the Trans-Canada Highway, a trans-continental federal-provincial highway system that went from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean and right up to Newfoundland at Mile One; overall distance spanned 7821 kilometres, making it one of the longest route of its type in the world; its white-on-green maple leaf route marker identified it throughout; the Trans-Canada route was composed of sections of pre-existing provincial highways that were tied one to the other, from province to province.

In the Prescott-Russell counties, it used our existing Highway 17 to make the connection between the city of Ottawa’s Queensway and the Ontario-Quebec eastern border, moving then to Autoroute 40 in Quebec and connecting to the Metropolitan Boulevard in Montreal. As part of the Harris provincial government cost-cutting measures, Highway 17’s official designation was taken away in 1997 and transferred to Highway 417 which had opened in 1975; it now has the statute of regional/county road and responsibilities were uploaded to the counties and municipalities it services.

In the 1940s, the Department of Highways of Ontario realized the original route of Highway 17, zigzaging through villages’ narrow and winding roads and facing steep grades, constituted a public danger as more and more transit vehicles used them, including the farming and the trucking industries. Decision was taken to improve the driving experience for all those involved between Ottawa and the Quebec border: a first stretch of the project was done from Ottawa to Rockland, then to Wendover and finally to Plantagenet by relocating this section of road by bypassing the village to the north; this was completed in 1954. The next section from Plantagenet to L’Orignal was fairly direct and flat, which is why no bypassing the village of Alfred was necessary; it also contributed to the village’s popularity for its famous chips stands and hotels. There used to be nine ‘stands à patates’ in the village, all open year-round; only one of the original survives today. Incidentally, the village is celebrating this year its 150th anniversary; although the village’s marketing strategy these last fifty years had been focused on being ‘the French fries capital of Ontario’ is in jeopardy, it survived and is still thriving; André Beaulne reportedly opened the original chip stand in 1948, almost 75 years ago! He was a visionary! Just imagine all the celebrities that surely drove through and halted on its main street: an ideal stopover for a greasy one or a cold one!

As the new Highway reached L’Orignal, decision had been made to bypass the village itself, then also Hawkesbury and Chute-à-Blondeau by re-routing a new section of road to the south; one of the main arguments was the construction of the Carillon hydro dam which was going to result in the flooding of the highway portion between Chute-à-Blondeau and Pointe-Fortune. Eventually, a short split double-lane section was built in the 1970s and a junction to the new 417 was later established.

The building and completion in 1956 of the Peter J. Kirk memorial bridge and interchange, at the intersection of the 17 and 34, which is presently under negotiation stages to be rebuilt, was part of this project. The new completed highway provides since a safer, more direct route between Ottawa and Montreal; its total length is 108.4 kilometres; the three bypasses of Plantagenet, L’Orignal and Hawkesbury/Chute-à-Blondeau were a gift from heaven for motorists but may have resulted in the death of some businesses that had prospered off local traffic until then. And thus our once proud local highway, which used to be part of our towns and villages ‘Main street’ and ‘Rue Principale’ became a modest county/local road!

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