The End of Road Tolls

9 February 1920

We’ve all heard the adage that there’s no certainty in life except for death and taxes. But, back in nineteenth-century Ottawa, it was more accurate to say there was no certainty in life except for death and tolls. People paid tolls, essentially user fees, on virtually everything. Commuters paid tolls to cross the Ottawa River on the Suspension Bridge. Boaters paid tolls to use the Rideau Canal. Lumbermen paid tolls to use the government timber slide. Farmers paid tolls to sell their produce at the Byward market. And, last but not least, everybody entering or leaving Ottawa paid a road toll.

The reason for this was simple. Governments had very few revenue sources in the nineteenth century. There was no income or sales taxes.  The federal government relied principally on custom duties and excise taxes for its revenues. Provincial governments relied on licences and permits, stumpage fees on timber, as well as grants from the federal government, while municipal governments depended on property taxes. Fortunately for governments, though not necessarily for their citizens, the problem of limited revenues was to a large extent mitigated by limited expenditures. There was no welfare state.

Habitants running the Toll Gate, 1867, watercolour copy of painting by Cornelius Krieghoff, artist unknown, Library and Archives Canada, 2837897.

Tolls were used to raise much needed cash to pay for necessary infrastructure, built either by the government or the private sector. Needless to say, there were lots of abuses and complaints.

The high cost of the tolls to use the Rideau Canal reportedly had a significant negative impact on trade. In 1850, the Ottawa Daily Citizen claimed that only a fifth of the wheat sold in Bytown was shipped there from points in Upper Canada via the canal owing to its high toll. It was cheaper to take freight the much longer route down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal and then ship it back west on the Ottawa River to the town. Farmers also complained continually about the tolls that they were required to pay to sell grain and other produce at the Byward and Wellington Markets.

But, by far, the biggest gripe people had was with road tolls.

During the nineteenth century, roads, particularly inter-urban “highways” (a misnomer if there ever was one), throughout Canada were terrible. Indeed, the way to travel long distance was by water or railway. In the early years, rural roads were typically maintained by legislated labour. In Upper Canada, a 1793 Act of Parliament obliged settlers to work for up to twelve days each year on maintaining the roads that went by their property, or pay a fine. When that proved insufficient, cash-strapped provincial and county governments encouraged private companies to construct turnpikes, i.e., toll roads, to meet the growing demand for road transportation by settlers. The only requirement was for investors to set up a company for that purpose, and file with the government a statement of what they proposed to do. There was no regulation on where the road was to be built, how it was to be built, or the amount to be charged for using it.

Advertisement in the Ottawa Daily Citizen, seeking tenders for construction of a toll house and two gates by the Bytown and Nepean Road Company, 5 June 1852.

As a consequence, toll roads proliferated. In the Ottawa area, turnpikes were constructed from the outskirts of the city, to farming communities in the Carleton Country hinterland and beyond. In 1852, the Bytown and Nepean Road Company took over a rough, narrow and ill-maintained road (Richmond Road) that extended five miles west from the outskirts of Bytown.[1] The road was only fourteen feet wide for the first mile and a mere nine feet wide for the remaining four miles. The company undertook to widen the road to a standard fourteen feet width for its entire length and to build toll-houses and gates at a cost of £500 per mile. The company later extended the road to Bell’s Corners. In the five months from when the company assumed control of the road in July 1852, it collected £300 in toll charges, out of which the company maintained the road, paid the salary of a toll-keeper, and declared two dividends to its shareholders.

Initially, the toll roads provided a useful service, opening up rural areas and linking communities. However, road maintenance was often poor. Macadamized roads, which were made of graduated layers of stone, frequently washed out and required constant upkeep; something that toll-road operators were often slow to provide. It was said that the road companies exacted the most from, and returned the least to, the general public.

While the toll charges were typically small, they added up. In 1897, it was reported that a farmer driving a team of horses ten to fifteen miles into Ottawa with a load of produce destined for the Byward market would have to pay no less than 50-60 cents in road tolls, and another 30 cents in market tolls, on each round trip. Adding in other expenses, including 25 cents for the farmer’s lunch and 25 cents to feed the horses, there wasn’t much profit left out of the $8 to $10 dollars made at the market.

Mr. Sparrow, a farmer from Cumberland, told the Ottawa Journal in 1892 that his tolls amounted to between $5 and $7 per month. “That money would go a long way towards buying boots for the child, or clothes for my wife or myself.” Mr. Richard Spratt who lived twelve miles out on the Gloucester Road, echoed Mr. Sparrow’s sentiments saying “The different tolls often mount up to a sum which greatly runs away with the profits, and keeps me from coming into the city as regularly as we might.”

Tariff of tolls leaving from Hintonburg heading west on the Richmond Road issued by the Bytown and Nepean Road Company, 1895. It cost 25 cents to drive a two-horse vehicle the length of the road.

One irate person said in an 1889 letter to the editor of the Ottawa Daily Citizen that country people didn’t object to paying “liberally” for road maintenance, as good roads increased the value of their property, and protected horses from harm and vehicles from damage. However, Ottawa-area highways were badly rutted or muddy in summer, and almost impassible in winter owing to long delays in clearing snow drifts. Added to this was the annoyance of having to stop at the toll-gates to pay the tolls. One could expect lengthy delays if there was a line-up to get through the gate, or if the gate-keeper had to make change. Woe betide anybody short of cash. Then, travellers were at the mercy of the toll-gate keeper who may or may let them through. A case in point was a country family whose supply of coal ordered from the city for delivery on a mid-winter Saturday was stopped at a toll-gate because the deliveryman only had five cents instead of the required seven cents for the toll. The deliveryman had to return to the city and remake the journey on the following Monday, leaving the family cold over the weekend.

There were many similar complaints. One person was incensed by a toll-gate operator demanding a toll on a Sunday in an apparent breach of the Lord’s Day Act. Another complained that the woman keeping the toll-gate at Osgoode forced a party returning from a funeral in Metcalfe to pay a toll. The County Crown Attorney, who was a member of the funeral party, paid it under protest after a pole was “neatly dropped between the dashboard of the cutter and the horse” when the rig attempted to run the gate.

Described as “medieval obstructions to traffic,” pressure to eliminate toll-gates mounted towards the end of the nineteenth century throughout Ontario. In 1897, the City of Ottawa proposed to the County Councils of Carleton and Russell that it would discontinue market tolls paid by farmers if the counties would buy out the private road companies and abolish road tolls in their jurisdictions. Ottawa also indicated that it would support the counties in securing legislation under which the province would provide funds for every mile of macadamized road constructed by the counties. It was to no avail. The Ottawa Journal remarked that “country men have never shown any disposition to meet the city halfway in the matter.”

Still, the writing was on the wall for toll roads. Owing in part to changes in provincial legislation, by 1914 only sixteen toll roads remained in Ontario, half of which were in Carleton County. These were: the Bytown and Nepean Road (8 5/8 miles); the Richmond Road (7 miles); the Nepean and North Gower Road (5 1/8 miles); the River branch of the Nepean and North Gower Road (2 miles); the Gloucester and Metcalfe Road (9 5/8 miles); the Hunt Club branch of the Gloucester and Metcalfe Road (3 5/8 miles); the Russell Road (4 ¾ miles); and the Montreal Road (8 ¼ miles). But this meant that virtually all access roads into Ottawa were subject to tolls. The only exception was Nicholas Street. In 1912, the new Nicolas Street subdivision at Bannermount, was advertised as being located “just the other side of the Hurdsman’s Bridge” on “the only road free from tolls into the city.”

In 1920, the Carleton County Council finally gave in, enticed by provincial legislation under which the Ontario government would pay 40 per cent of the cost of expropriating the remaining toll roads. This was sweetened by a deal with the City of Ottawa under which Ottawa would pay a further 30 per cent of the cost. Many old county councillors who had previously rejected the elimination of tolls became enthusiastic supporters of toll-free roads. In the end, only one councillor, the representative of Osgoode, dissented.

On the order of the court, the toll roads operated by the Bytown and Nepean Company, the Nepean and North Gower Consolidated Road Company, the Ottawa and Gloucester Road Company and the Ottawa, Montreal and Russell Road Company passed into the control of Carleton County. Starting Monday, 9 February 1920, the nine remaining toll gates—two gates on Montreal Road, one on Russell Road, two on Metcalfe Road (Bank Street), two on Richmond Road, and two on Merivale Road—were lifted for good. (There was another toll-gate on Hunt Club/Bowesville Road but it was not in operation at that time due to the poor condition of the road.)

To the joy of car owners and the sadness of now unemployed toll-gate keepers, ownership of the roads was transferred to the Ottawa Suburban Roads Commission whose first chairman, Mr. John Bingham, was a director of the Ottawa Motor Club. This was no coincidence. The Club, indeed all motorists, had been a major force behind the elimination of toll gates.

The Commission immediately set engineers to work to assess the state of the unpaved roads and the cost of bringing them up to a satisfactory standard. Richmond and Montreal Roads were deemed to be in fairly good shape. Merivale and Bowesville Roads were assessed as being in poor shape with their road surfaces irregular and in need of grading. Stretches of Metcalfe Road (Bank Street) were also in very poor shape. All the roads needed proper drainage. The engineers provided two estimates, $80,000 for essential improvements and $182,000 for paving them with asphalt.

Most of the old toll-gate houses—toll-gate keepers lost their homes as well as their jobs—were sold off to the highest bidder with the proviso that the houses had to be moved. The Russell Road toll-house was sold to a Mr. William Gorman for $377. The shack at the Ottawa West gate went to Mr. M.P. Merryfield for the munificent amount of $20. The Ottawa West’s toll-keeper’s house, which was situated a short distance away from the toll-gate, was put up for rent.

The final contentious issue was the compensation to be paid to the shareholders of the four road companies. Naturally, the four companies set high estimates of their roads’ value. But if the owners had expected to receive these amounts, they were sorely disappointed. In December 2020, a judge awarded the four companies a total of $159,000 in compensation compared to the $202,000 the companies had submitted in claims.

Toll roads in Ontario passed into history for more than seventy years. But they re-emerged in the 1990s with the construction of Highway 407 which bypasses Toronto north of Highway 401. The “407” is owned by a consortium of Canadian and Spanish investors. Another toll road, Highway 412, which links the 401 to the 407, opened in 2016.

Sources:

Allston Dave, 2015. “Expanding on the old Richmond Road tollhouse & O’Neil house,” The Kitchissippi Museum, http://kitchissippimuseum.blogspot.com/2015/11/expanding-on-old-richmond-road.html.

Bytown and Nepean Road Company. 1895. Tariff of Tolls.

Gilchrist, C.W., 2015. “Roads and Highways,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/roads-and-highways.

Ontario, Government of, 1914. Report of the Public Roads and Highways Commission, L.K. Cameron, Toronto.

Ottawa Citizen, 1850. “Bytown and Prescott Railroad,” 16 November.

——————, 1852. “Slides,” 8 May.

——————, 1853, “Bytown and Nepean Macadamized Road,” 5 February.

——————, 1864. “Collection of Turnpike Tolls On Sunday, 9 February.

——————, 1873. “The Toll Gate,” 8 October.

——————, 1879. “The Market Grievance,” 7 February.

——————, 1887. “Our Municipal Free Lance,” 22 October.

——————, 1889, “Public Road,” 26 November.

——————, 1892. “The Abolition of Tolls,” 2 June.

——————, 1920. “Toll Roads Passing Hailed With Approval By Motorists,” 31 January.

——————, 1920. “Will Be Delay In Serving Notice On Toll Road Owners,” 2 February.

——————, 1920. “Suburban Road Commission Has Received Estimates From Engineers,” 13 February.

——————, 1920. “Carleton Sells Off Several Toll Houses,” 19 April.

——————, 1920. “Toll Road Award Has Been Agreed On By The Board,” 23 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1893. “Away With Tolls,” 22 February.

——————-, 1897. “Market Fees And Road Tolls,” 15 May.

——————-, 1897. “Favor A Free Market,” 21 May.

——————-, 1912. “This Is The House,” 23 May.

——————-, 1920. “Couty Council Is Out Against The Toll Roads,” 28 January.

——————-, 1920. “Can’t Charge Toll When County Acts,” 31 January.

——————-, 1920. “Toll Road Owners Get Notice Today,” 7 February.

——————-, 1920. “The Toll Roads A Thing Of The Past After Monday,” 6 February.

——————-, 1920. “The Toll Roads Gone,” 12 February.

——————-, 1920. “Sell Old Toll Gates To Highest Bidder,” 19 April.


[1] For a more detailed account of toll gates and toll houses on the Richmond Road, see Dave Allston’s excellent blog, The Kichissippi Museum.

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