Back in the day when the Freedom Road was not quite yet the Freedom Road, everybody knew Pope’s Hill. If you didn’t know it personally, you’d certainly heard tell of it.
Back in the day when the Trans-Labrador Highway was only a twinkle in the eyes of Labradorians (a twinkle Joey Smallwood clearly declared would never materialize because Newfoundland didn’t need it) a road did run west out of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, but it didn’t get you to the outside world — not unless you were willing to take a long detour far north to a QNS&L Railway siding where you could load your vehicle onto a freight car for transport to Sept-Isle, Que.
The road, after all, had not been built for the benefit of Labradorians, or for any other members of the travelling public. It had been hastily carved through the bush for the sole purpose of carrying heavy equipment, supplies and materials from the railhead at Esker and the seaport at Goose Bay to the company constructing a large electricity generating station in the middle of the formerly roadless wilderness.
Little or no thought was put into how it might be used afterwards and who might use it. In fact, the builders considered it temporary and once they were finished with it they abandoned it to the forces of nature. They didn’t care who used it after they were done.
It had been a rough road to start and it quickly became even rougher. Almost no maintenance was done in the years that followed except sporadically by government and more often by individuals and companies that had to take it upon themselves to fill in washouts or repair the many one-laned wooden bridges. The road was never once cleared of snow until the mid-1990s and then only after the bridging of the Ossakmanuen Narrows opened it to the rest of Canada.
Even then it was a nearly impossible road to maintain since it had no foundation beside what the earth could provide. There is some firm ground in Labrador between pond, lake, stream and bog, but it’s either on the ridge of a stony esker (the dry bed of an ancient river that once flowed across a melting glacier) or on the steep sides of deep valleys. The eskers are many and the hills are many along the road, but there’s only one Pope’s Hill and everyone remembers it.
Often resembling more a narrow cascading streambed than a drivable lane as it climbed at times almost vertically up through dense forest from the Churchill River valley, the hill required strong motors going west and good brakes coming back east.
People tell stories of being stranded on the upward climb, their tires spinning in loose gravel, unable to take purchase until the drivers turn the cars around to creep up the hill backwards.
There’s a story of one friend who drove to rescue another who was broken down out beyond Pope’s Hill. The tow back turned hair-raisingly dangerous when the dead car at the end of the rope lost its brakes.
The two cars raced down the hill in the dark, tied together, crashing bumpers, barely hanging onto the corners at the brink of a cliff, but finally making the valley floor whole and alive without tragically meeting any other cars on the way down — the drivers thankful, although now they laugh about it as if it had been funny at the time.
Pope’s Hill is not like that today, not for about a week or so. Today, Labradorians and visitors can now sail up and down Pope’s Hill in utter safety and comfort along a firmly founded, evenly graded, securely guardrailed and smoothly paved highway. It might even be striped by now.
There’s still lots of work to be done to bring Labrador’s roadways up to provincial standard (if not better), but at least the taming of Pope’s Hill is one milestone passed.
True, driving the Freedom Road may no longer be quite the adventure it once was, but it must be said that some developments do count as improvements.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.