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ROY, THOMAS, surveyor, engineer, author, and geologist; d. 28 July 1842 in Toronto.

It seems probable that Thomas Roy was born in the Miramichi valley in northern New Brunswick, a son of Scottish settlers. An 1810 report by one Thomas Roy, a surveyor of woods at St Peter’s (Bathurst), N.B., bears a striking resemblance in its style and handwriting to reports prepared by the subject of this biography.

Roy arrived in Toronto in July 1834 and soon secured work inspecting the harbour. In September he was engaged as surveyor for Upper Canada’s first railway project, the Simcoe and Ontario. Although he surveyed most of the route from Holland Landing to Toronto, financial difficulties postponed construction and resulted in his resignation in March 1836. In subsequent letters to William Henry Draper* (mha for Toronto) and the city’s council, Roy criticized the adoption of a new route, to Lake Huron, which bypassed Lake Simcoe and much of the hinterland north of Toronto.

In March 1835 he had applied for appointment as city engineer to report, with an engineer named by the lieutenant governor, on the state of the harbour. He won the position, and in his examination of the harbour was accompanied by Captain Richard Henry Bonnycastle (probably the government’s appointee) and a “Mr. Call” (possibly James Cull). Roy was subsequently retained by the city to work on such projects as paving, drainage, and street lines. In its obituary, the Toronto Examiner said that he had “planned and carried into execution the various public improvements which have raised this city to its present state of prosperity.”

Roy’s sound knowledge of engineering, along with an indication of his road and sewer work, is demonstrated in his Remarks on the principles and practice of road-making, as applicable to Canada, published in Toronto in 1841 and a truly remarkable work. Many of his observations, notably on drainage, have relevance today. He was critical, as were other engineers, of the costly decision to rebuild Yonge Street in a straight line. He was aware, too, of the problems with planked-road construction, then widely used in the Canadas, and hoped that the “present mania for plank roads may be arrested before it produces so much evil.” He even suggested educational standards for those responsible for road design and construction. Roy supported the contention of Cull, Bonnycastle, and others that macadamizing would prove less expensive than planking; in 1842 he prepared an estimate for macadamizing part of Bay Street in Toronto. But like Cull, he failed to comprehend that the province could not yet afford a system of macadamized roads.

Concurrent with Roy’s work as an engineer were his pioneering geological studies. His railway survey had apparently introduced him to the succession of ridges north of Toronto, formed as the prehistoric shores of the predecessors of Lake Ontario. In addition to describing the ridges in lectures to the mechanics’ institute in Toronto, he prepared a paper on them for the Geological Society of London. Presented on his behalf by Charles Lyell, a noted British geologist, the paper was discussed at meetings of the society on 22 March and 5 April 1837. According to the printed summary of the paper, it described the successive stages of the Great Lakes and included calculations of the rate and manner in which they drained to present-day levels. Roy’s insightful study provided a benchmark for later Canadian geologists, including Arthur Philemon Coleman*.

Roy corresponded not only with Lyell but also with James Hall, of the geological survey of New York. His surviving letters to Hall, between 1838 and 1842, display his wide knowledge of the geology of British North America and the adjacent parts of the United States; as well, they reveal an acquaintance with England from travelling there. A geological map prepared by him consisted of a cross-section of the country from the “coal field of Pennsylvania through the Niagara District and the Home District to the Granite Rocks beyond Lake Simcoe.” The map achieved some fame in Roy’s lifetime and was known both to Lyell and to William Edmond Logan* who saw it in a legislative library. The work was apparently destroyed in one of the fires which plagued the early legislative buildings of Canada.

When Lyell first visited North America, Roy arranged the brief Canadian part of his trip in the spring of 1842. He met Lyell at Niagara Falls and later took him on a tour of the ridges north of Toronto. Lyell acknowledged Roy’s help in his Travels in North America, but it was left to Bonnycastle, in Canada and the Canadians, in 1846, to pay due tribute to him: Roy was a “person little appreciated and less understood by the great ones of the earth at Toronto [unquestionably a reference to Logan and his colleagues], and no one has done him even a shadow of justice, but Mr. Lyell, who, having no colonial dependence, had no fears in so doing.” Thomas Roy died on 28 July 1842; although he had married, it is uncertain whether he had any children.

Robert F. Legget

Thomas Roy’s article “On the ancient state of the North American continent” appeared in the Geological Soc. of London, Proc., 2 (1833–38): 537–38.

AO, RG 1, A-I-6: 17241–44. CTA, RG 1, B, 1835, 1837, 1841–42. R. H. Bonnycastle, Canada and the Canadians, in 1846 (2v., London, 1846), 1: 186–87. Charles Lyell, Travels in North America, in the years 1841–42; with geological observations on the United States, Canada, and Nova Scotia (2v., New York, 1845), 2: 85. British Colonist, 10 Aug. 1842. Examiner (Toronto), 17 Aug. 1842. Toronto directory, 1837. F. H. Armstrong, “Toronto’s first railway venture, 1834–1838,” OH, 58 (1966): 21–41. A. P. Coleman, “The Iroquois Beach,” Canadian Institute, Trans. (Toronto), ser.4, 6 (1898–99): 29–44. M. S. Cross, “The stormy history of the York roads, 1833–1865,” OH, 54 (1962): 1–24. [G. R. Gilbert], [“Old shore lines in the Ontario basin”], Canadian Institute, Proc. (Toronto), ser.3, 6 (1887–88): 2–4. R. F. Legget, “An early treatise on road making; Thomas Roy – an unsung hero of early Canadian engineering,” “Thomas Roy: an early builder of Toronto,” and “Railway survey conflicts cause ‘mystery’ engineer to resign,” Canadian Consulting Engineer (Don Mills [Toronto]), 15 (1973), no.11: 36, 38; no.12: 48–49; 21 (1979), no.2: 44–47.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Robert F. Legget, “ROY, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 1, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/roy_thomas_7E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/roy_thomas_7E.html
Author of Article: Robert F. Legget
Title of Article: ROY, THOMAS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: October 1, 2014