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.


Allston Dave, 2015. “Expanding on the old Richmond Road tollhouse & O’Neil house,” The Kitchissippi Museum,

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

Gilchrist, C.W., 2015. “Roads and Highways,” The Canadian Encyclopedia,

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.

The Winter Trots

9 February 1921

A sport that flourished in central Canada and in the northern United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was winter harness racing. In 1907, the Ottawa Citizen reported that there were few places of any importance with cold weather and access to a river or lake big enough to accommodate a quarter or half-mile track that did not indulge in the sport. In addition to major centres such as Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, ice racing was enjoyed in small Ontario communities, such as Napanee, Belleville and Port Perry.

Ice racing on the Ottawa River, 1902, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, 3387722.

Initially, horse owners were skeptical of the new sport, owing to the heightened risk of injury to their valuable horses from running on ice. Part of the risk came from the type of shoes the horses wore. According to a report in an 1893 edition of the Canadian Sportsman,[1] horses ran on five-calk (caulkin), all-steel horseshoes. These calks gave the horses grip on the ice. They were also sharp, and could cause serious injury. To help fortify the horses against the cold, horses were reportedly given very strong black coffee between heats. Apparently, for one aristocratic mare called Lady Mary Tudor the coffee was replaced with a bottle of champagne!

Racing on ice also had its particular challenges for drivers. In the early days of the sport, cutters (a single-person sleigh) were used. These cutters had a propensity of swinging wide in the turns leading to trouble on crowded tracks. Consequently, they were equipped with a “knife” on the cutter’s runner which could be deployed by the driver depressing a foot-controlled lever. The knife would be thrust into the surface of the ice track, thereby giving the cutter great stability on turns and lessening the swing. In later years of the sport, cutters were replaced by the same bike sulky used in dirt track races.

Despite the risks, the sport took off. With substantial money to be had, the reservations of horse owners quickly disappeared. Times on ice tracks were slower than on the usual dirt tracks—roughly ten seconds for a mile circuit.

When ice racing started in the Ottawa area is a bit murky. A newspaper report from the 1920s claimed that sometime about 1860 horse racing was held on the Rideau Canal. As the Canal was not drained at this time, the surface was wide enough to make a wide racing surface. The track apparently went from a point east of the Bank Street Bridge to a spot near the “Deep Cut,” close to where the University of Ottawa is today.

Certainly, by the mid-1870s, the sport was well established across the Ottawa River in Hull at an ice track at Leamy Lake. According to the Democrat of Rochester, New York, the Leamy Lake course was “the most perfect ice track in America.” Racing was held under the auspices of the Winter Trotting Club at Crystal Park. It was a popular, annual, mid-winter event. The first day of racing in February, 1877, drew more than 3,500 spectators. The Citizen marvelled that given the amount of “cordial” consumed, it was remarkable that the day passed without a single fight. Prize money for the races was often provided by local hotels. In 1887, gold and silver championship medals were offered by the Winter Trotting Club. The medals were designed and manufactured by Mr. C. Addison of Sparks Street with the inscription “Crystal Park – 1887 Champion.”

In 1900, ice racing commenced on the Ottawa River under the auspices of the Central Canada Ice Racing Association. The half-mile course was located on cleared ice near Queen’s Wharf, located roughly a quarter mile to the east of the Queen Alexandra (Interprovincial) Bridge then under construction. The meet, which was held in the middle of February, was the talk of the sporting world. It was widely advertised throughout Canada and the United States, and attracted hundreds of racing fans to Ottawa, some from as far away as New York City. Naturally, betting was a key attraction. F.H. Hoskins of Hamilton, Ontario did the bookkeeping while Fitch & Company, also of Hamilton, was in charge of the pools.

This is an interesting view of the ice track from the Hull side. In the background are the Parliament Buildings and the Queen Alexandra (Interprovincial) Bridge. Source: Lost Ottawa.

To ensure the success of the meet, no expense was spared. The half-mile oval track was prepared two weeks in advance on ice that was as much as three feet thick. Local horsemen were encouraged to try out the new track in the days leading up to the big event. Stands and stalls were erected for the anticipated thousands of racing fans, punters and horses. A perimeter fence was also erected around the track. To raise the tone of the meet, ladies were admitted free. The opening ceremonies were performed by Ottawa’s Mayor Payment, with the guests of honour being Lord and Lady Grey, the Governor General and his wife. The first day’s races featured the 2.50 class and the 2.10 class; the fields for both were very large.

The three-day meet was a huge success and was repeated annually for more than a decade, with racing extended to a full week. The facilities for spectators and horses also improved over time. By 1909, the large, wooden club house, provided for the comfort for spectators, was heated and lit by electricity.  Heated sheds were also constructed for the horses and their riders. As well, there was a separate club house for ladies.

The races attracted all segments of society, including the city’s upper crust.  The Buffalo Sunday Courier said that on the ice of the Ottawa River one could see “belles and beaux galore, clad in seal, otter, black fox and Persian lamb.”  Draped over the backs of Russian sleighs and English hacks were wraps of fox, musk-ox and wolf, representing “quite a bank account.”

Not all the racing was above board. In 1908, a grey horse oddly named The Eel, owned by a Mrs O’Keefe of Buffalo, New York, had escaped the attention of bookmakers and horse enthusiasts. With few horses of any merit apparently coming out of Buffalo, people ignored it and instead focused on the top-heavy favourite, Anita. Punters began to take note when The Eel came out onto the ice driven by noted reinsman Danny McEwen who had driven a similar grey horse called Silver Joe through the 1907 Grand Circuit with considerable success. The Eel, a.k.a. Silver Joe, beat Anita, and in the process earned a fortune in bets for Silver Joe’s true owner, Frank Entricken. Mrs O’Keefe of Buffalo was none other than Frank Entricken’s sister.

The Central Canada Ice Racing Association hosted the annual event until 1911. It had expected to continue to do so. But something went wrong late in 1911 that disrupted plans for the coming 1912 winter racing season. What exactly occurred is unclear, though a newspaper account suggested organizational problems within the association. There was also competition from both the Ottawa and Hull Driving Clubs which were both hosting ice harness racing meets during the upcoming 1912 winter season.

In mid-January, 1912, just a few days after the Ottawa Driving Club had sponsored harness racing on a flooded ice track at Lansdowne Park, the Hull Driving Club opened its inaugural meet on the ice of the Ottawa River. The stands the club erected could accommodate three thousand spectators. As in past years under the previous organizers, special stands were built for ladies who were admitted to the races for free. There were also cooling stands for the horses and refreshment booths for spectators.

Each year, the annual meet became bigger and better. The 1917 meet, which was held over the first week of February, turned out to be the most lavish ever with purses totalling $23,000 (over $380,000 in today’s money). But there was a cloud hanging over the event, indeed every horse racing event in Canada. While the slogan for the races that year on the Ottawa River was “business as usual,” the curtain was about to come down on the racing season in Canada. Starting the beginning of May 1917, gambling, deemed “incommensurate with the war effort,” was suspended. Winter harness racing on the Ottawa River was over until at least the end of the war.

Advertisement for the last day of harness racing on the Ottawa River, Ottawa Citizen, 9 February 1921.

Ice harness racing resumed in 1920 when the law was amended to once again allow betting. That year, the races were held at Lansdowne Park. The following year, ice racing on the Ottawa River re-commenced under the auspices of the River View Park Racing Association of Hull. The Association, whose membership consisted of Ottawa and Hull sportsmen, was established for the sole purpose of reviving winter ice racing on the Ottawa River. The president of the Association was Hull’s mayor, Louis Cousineau.

Fourteen races were organized with a total purse of $7,000 (later increased to about $9,000 with the addition of new races)—substantially smaller than the $23,000 purse of the previous 1917 meet on the Ottawa River before racing was halted owing to the wartime ban on gambling. Betting was via auction-pools, bookmaking, and pari-mutuels. Fitch & Company of Hamilton, Ontario was awarded the auction-pool and bookmaking privileges for the meet.

The seven-day meet, which ran from 3 February to 9 February 1921, was held on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. Press reports don’t give the precise location, but access to the circuit was likely from what is now Jacques Cartier Park. Like in earlier years prior to the war-time interruption of ice racing, there were stands on the ice for 3,000 spectators along with a heated wooden pavilion 380 feet long by 140 feet wide. A separate stand for ladies was also built. The judges’ and timers’ stands were enclosed by glass. The track, 60 feet wide in the stretches, was described as the best ever. In addition to local horses, many horses came in from the United States—some had just competed in the Mt. Clemens, Michigan ice races held a few days before the Hull event.

Each day of racing featured two or three races (with heats), each with a purse of $300-$500, with half going to the first-place horse, 25 percent to the second, 15 percent to third place, and 10 per cent to the fourth-place finisher. In addition, $6 and $4 were given to the fifth and six-place finishers, respectively. The 1921 races were held under the rules of the Canadian National Trotting and Pacing Harness Horse Association.

The week-long event was a huge success. The crowds were large and the races were well received. Mayor Cousineau was the guest of honour on opening day, and said the word “Go” for the start of the first heat of the opening race, the 2.35 class for horses born within 100 miles of Hull.

The last day of racing, 9 February 1921, featured two classified one mile-races—the classified trot and the classified pace—each with a purse of $300. Franklin B., a chestnut gelding, won the trot in a time of 2 minutes 25 ¾ seconds. King Zip, a black gelding, took the pace in a time of 2 minutes, 21 ¼ seconds.

Despite the resounding success of the meet, which the Citizen described as “the cleanest and best race meeting seen on ice in many years,” the last day of the River View meet was also the last time ice racing was held on the Ottawa River. In 1922, the ice races were held at Lansdowne Park in the context of the Canadian National Winter Carnival. Despite the popularity of the sport, ice harness racing then disappeared from Ottawa’s winter scene.

Winter harness racing was resuscitated in 1979 for the first Ottawa Winterlude and was held annually on the Rideau Canal until 1985.


CBC, 2018. Horse Racing on the Rideau Canal kickstarted first Winterlude, 4 February,

Buffalo Sunday Courier, 1902. “Winter Racing,” in Ottawa Journal, 28 January.

Democrat (Rochester, NY), 1878. “Sporting,” in Ottawa Citizen, 26 January.

Elder, Ken, 2014. “Ice Race Meetings on the Ottawa River, — a forgotten tradition?”, Heritage Ottawa Newsletter, January, Volume 41, No. 1.

Ottawa Citizen, 1877. “The First Day’s Racing at Leamy’s Lake,” 16 February.

——————, 1886. “Championship Medals,” 8 December.

——————, 1900. “The Turf,”5 February.

——————, 1900. “The Turf,” 6 February.

——————, 1900. “The Turf,” 16 February.

——————, 1900. “World of Sport,” 19 February.

——————, 1900. “The Turf,” 20 February.

——————, 1900. “The Ice Record Was Recorded,” 21 February.

——————, 1907. “Winter Sports in Canada,” 12 January.

——————, 1911. “Another Meet,” 7 December.

——————, 1911. “Success Is Already Assured Ottawa Driving Club’s Meet,” 27 December.

——————, 1912. “Many Horsemen In Town For Ice Races, All Roads Lead Today To Ottawa River,” 18 January.

——————, 1916. “Ice Racing as Usual,” 22 December.

——————, 1917. “Slow Music Please For Canadian Racing,” 1 August.

——————, 1921. “River View Park Racing Ass’n (Limited),” 25 January.

——————, 1921. “Ice Racing Meet Opened Thursday on Ottawa River,” 4 February.

——————, 1921. “Ice Racing Meet Closed Yesterday,” 10 February.

——————, 1925. “First Ice Racing Was On The Canal,” 10 October.

Ottawa Journal, 1920. “River View Park Racing Ass’n Complete Plans For Ice Races,” 18 December.

——————-, 1925. “Racing on Ice,” 12 January.

——————-, 1925. “Always Gave Horse Bottle Of Wine Between Races,” 26 March.

Wilenius, Ian, 2018. “A Safe Bet: Regulating Online Gambling and Lotteries Through the Criminal Code,” 27 Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies 1. 

[1] The Canadian Sportsman was established in 1870, and was the oldest harness racing magazine in North America. It ceased publication in December 2013.