Major highways in Ontario were once toll roads

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


The “user pay” concept has recently become one way that governments propose to deal with the problem of maintaining services with dwindling resources.

As far as roads go, the idea is not a new one. Toll roads, and private ownership, were common methods used to build and maintain major roads beginning in the 1840s. Such roads were particularly important to Centre Wellington.

Roads were the first major infrastructure projects to be constructed. They allowed settlers to come to the area and, more importantly, permitted the export of agricultural produce to markets.

The perpetual problem was that the roads were inadequately built and maintained, and governments, with their limited ability to raise tax revenue at the time, found it impossible to fund adequate road building programs.

Concession and side roads were a part of the original surveys of all townships. These were chopped and cleared under the supervision of the township councils, but they were never intended to be used as major thoroughfares.

The government of Upper Canada, beginning in the 1830s, realized that a network of roads connecting the communities of southern Ontario was vital.

The Surveyor General’s office planned dozens of roads, and a number of these went beyond the conceptual stage and were surveyed. Of this group of roads, the important one locally was the Owen Sound Road.

The government hired Charles Rankin to survey such a road in the summer of 1837. This road ran north from Oakville, zigzagged across Garafraxa township to Arthur, and then proceeded to Owen Sound.

The government provided some money for the road, but an economic downturn, the aftermath of the 1837 Rebellion, and dozens of requests for other road projects combined to stall any major expenditure.

In the meantime, the Brock Road, from Dundas to Guelph, served as the major route into Wellington. Roads from Guelph to Elora and Fergus had been opened, funded in large part by the owners of the land, who made the expenditure to raise the value of the adjoining land.

A few maps and other documents from the 1840s have survived. I have a copy of a map from 1845 or 1846 with annotations. The stretch from Guelph to Fergus is described as “deep rich soil, farms generally along the road.” The stretch from a point three miles north of Fergus to Arthur was “dense forest, heavy timber, flat land, no road opened.” From Arthur to what was later Mount Forest, the road was “opened by the government, but in a very bad state as to roots, stumps and drainage, bridge over the branch of the Saugine to be repaired and secured.”

Because the province was unable and unwilling to improve this road or build others, local businessmen began forming themselves into joint stock companies to raise money and do the road building themselves. Two such companies received charters by acts of parliament in July 1847: the Guelph and Dundas Road Company, and the Guelph and Arthur Road Company. Guelph men dominated both companies.

James Webster, the co-founder of Fergus, was the member of parliament for Wellington at the time, and he secured a provincial subsidy of $7,500 for the Guelph and Arthur Road Co. This money, it appears, was spent on the section between Fergus and Arthur. That road was brought up to a sufficient state that a regular postal service began on it, between Fergus and Owen Sound, in 1847.

Although the Guelph and Arthur Road Company had a charter, another projected company, the Guelph and Elora Road Co., failed to get its charter approved in 1847. Everyone realized that the two roads north of Guelph would follow the same route for the first four miles.

County council addressed this problem, and eventually agreed to build the portion from Guelph to the junction at Marden as a county project. The engineer estimated the cost of this four-mile stretch at $10,000. County council approved the expenditure only when Dr. William Clarke and other businessmen in Guelph offered their personal guarantees for the cost.

The county, in partnership with Wentworth and Gore counties, had already taken over the Brock Road south of Guelph, and had spent a great deal of money on it. The shareholders in the two road companies north of Guelph complained that the county’s intrusion would rob them of revenue from the most profitable portion of their roads. The promoters of these roads had persuaded themselves that these would be very lucrative ventures, which would eventually return dividends of up to 15%.

The Elora Road promoters secured their charter in 1849. This company was very much centred on Elora. The principle promoters consisted of Charles Allan, Andrew Geddes and Jasper Gilkison. Like many business ventures of the period, this partnership crossed political, social and religious boundaries (Allan was a Clear Grit Liberal and a Presbyterian; Geddes and Gilkison were Conservative and Anglican).

The gravel road these men sought to build was far more ambitious than the connecting road to Guelph originally planned two years earlier. The Elora and Saugeen Road was to run from Marden to Elora, and eventually to Southampton, thereby tapping a large market area for Elora and boosting the economy of the village. Allan, Geddes and Gilkison owned most of the land in Elora, and stood to profit handsomely if Elora became a major market town.

Road companies such as the Elora and Saugeen did not own the right-of-way of the road, but only the improvements they made on them. To pay for these improvements they were permitted to levy tolls.

Normally, there was a scale of rates, depending on the size and weight of the wagon, number of animals and number of people. There were numerous exemptions; for example, people going to church could pass free.

Typically, the road companies set up toll houses at about six-mile intervals. The toll keeper lived in or very near the toll house.

The road companies found that the easiest way to collect tolls was to let out each toll house by tender for a year. Prospective toll keepers would bid on the job. The man submitting the highest bid would pay that amount to the company, and keep all the tolls he collected. If traffic was high he could do well; if it was low, he might have little or nothing to show for his year’s work.

The Elora and Saugeen Road Company sold its shares for $25 each, a sum worth at least 100 times that in today’s money.

Naturally, only a few people could afford such an investment. Only a fraction of construction costs could be met with money raised from shareholders. The company, almost immediately, began seeking additional sources of capital through debenture sales, government subsidy or a combination of the two.

Most purchasers of shares in the Elora and Saugeen Road Company had a direct interest in its completion. Millers and merchants dominated the stockholder’s list.

These businessmen wanted cheap and reliable transportation to Guelph, and they wanted business from the north to come to their businesses. Obviously, as major customers of the road, they wanted tolls to be low. This conflicted with their interests as shareholders.

An additional complication was that this same small group of men also dominated local political affairs. Shareholders of the Elora and Saugeen Road Company, and other road companies, had a major voice at county council. This situation made gravel road construction the hottest political issue locally in the early 1850s.

(Next week: part two of the story of early roads in Wellington County.)

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Sept. 27, 1994.



Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015