Remembering the Abolition of the Toll Gates of York County: December 31: Snapshots in History
On December 31 and beyond, take a moment to delve back into history to the time when the toll gates were abolished in York County (including the Toronto Area) on December 31, 1896. Road tolls began in the town of York (Toronto’s forerunner) in 1820 as a means to build and maintain passable roads. York’s first tollhouse was constructed at the corner of Yonge and King Streets which in those days was a crossroads in the countryside.
Robert R. Bonis, author of The History of Scarborough (1968), wrote on page 267 that York citizens had been clamouring for road improvements for some time and made their feelings known to members of the Legislative Assembly. A resolution was introduced into the Assembly on February 2, 1833 that called for the issuance of debentures in the amount of £10,000 Pounds to provide for road improvements on the three approaches to the Town of York using the process of Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam (i.e. “macadamizing”). An Act encompassing the principles of the resolution was passed by the Assembly on February 8, 1833 with the purpose of raising £10,000 Pounds on the credit of collecting tolls. Five prominent citizens, Jesse Ketchum, Charles Thompson, George Denison, D’Arcy Boulton Jr. and Charles Coxwell Small, were appointed as trustees overseeing the project and erecting the toll gates. Yonge Street was allocated £4,000, Kingston Road was assigned £2,000 and Dundas Street was to receive £1,500, while the remaining £2,500 was to be assigned as needed at the discretion of the project’s trustees.
The project ran into some problems. No one was buying debentures so the trustees purchased bonds to secure the raising of funds to continue with the project. The macadamizing process turned out to be very expensive for constructing roads so cost-cutting was implemented by switching to the less expensive planking process. The trustees of the Kingston Road project authorized the laying of a “sixteen-foot-wide plankway of stout four-inch pine planks, spiked to sleepers, out along the Kingston Road for eighteen miles from Toronto to the Rouge Hill, and in 1839 set up toll gates there, at Washington Church and at Norway Village…” (Bonis, page 268). However, over time, repairs required to maintain a plank roadway would increase the cost above that of the macadamized alternative.
In spite of the costs, there were benefits to the local economy. Traffic increased on the Scarborough roadways with farmers taking their produce to market; consequently, this resulted in taverns and inns springing up along the route, allowing weary travellers to break up their journey (Bonis, pages 268-269).
Adam Bunch, writing in Spacing in 2013, noted that many people in the York/Toronto area were opposed to paying tolls and tried to avoid them by speeding past toll gates. One lumber dealer, tired of paying tolls in order to make deliveries to the British army garrison at Fort York, bought a land plot adjacent to the toll gate and had his men build a road through roads to bypass the toll gate. That road, Rebecca Street, still exists to this day in the Ossington-Queen area in downtown Toronto.
Chris Bateman, writing on BlogTO in 2013, noted that in the 1800s, toll booths with large gates blocking the roadway were placed at all major routes in/out of York/Toronto, such as Broadview and Danforth, Dundas and Bloor, Queen and Bathurst, and King and Yonge. Not all drivers of delivery wagons had the option of building their own roadway to deliver goods to Fort York or the St. Lawrence Market so they had to deal with the toll gates and pay the tolls. Unfortunately, the tolls could vary by route taken, the type of load being delivered, the amount being delivered on the wagon and the reason for passage. However, exemptions were made for military vehicles, those travelling to church on Sundays and for funeral processions.
Sometimes, those in opposition to toll payment would take matters into their own hands, including an extreme example in 1895 where someone burned down the wooden toll gates (only to see the City of Toronto propose their replacement by fire-proof iron gates) during the time when York County was considering the abolition of toll gates altogether.
Toll gates and toll roads also had to deal with competition from the railways as Harvey Overton Currell pointed out in The Mimico Story on page 78. An 1850 scandal over the sale of the Lake Shore and other main roads in the Toronto district to a private company did not help the public perception towards the toll road system.
Some of those interested in the local history aspect of toll gates might ask if there are any enduring reminders from this earlier time period. Chris Bateman reminded us that the original Tollgate #3 at Bathurst and Davenport was saved from destruction in 1993 and relocated nearby to become the Tollkeeper’s Cottage museum in Tollkeeper’s Park. David Wencer, writing in 2010 about “The Hidden Etobicoke Village of Claireville”, highlighted the continuing existence of 2095 Codlin Crescent, which was believed to have been a tollhouse on the old Albion Plank Road.
Please enjoy exploring some of the resources available through Toronto Public Library collections, including digitized images of items available at the Baldwin Collection at the Toronto Reference Library. Below are some examples:
Toll Gate, Dundas Street west, north side, at St. Clair Avenue West, showing toll house, Toronto, Ont., circa 1896. (Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection, B-3-27a)
Toll Gate, Yonge St., n. of Marlborough Ave., 1870? (Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection, S 14-7)
Upper Yorkville toll-gate weigh scales (billhead), 1875. (Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection, 1875. Toll-Gate. VS)
Toll Gate, Dundas St. W., n. side, between Sheridan & Brock Aves. (Brockton toll gate), 185-?. Artist: John Wesley Cotton. (Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection, JRR 932 Cab IV)
Some books in Toronto Public Library collections also provide information on the history of toll gates in the Toronto area. Below is such an example:
(Source: Robert R. Bonis, A History of Scarborough, 1968, page 76. Illustrator: David I. Adolphus)
Available in eBook PDF format.