Roads dominated first years of Wellington County council

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.

Recent columns have looked at aspects of the early days of local government, culminating in the formation of the County of Wellington in 1854.

By that date, settlement had been underway for several years in most of the county. Peel and Maryborough had seen a great rush of newcomers during the previous five years, and the last of the new townships, Minto, was about to be opened.

Growth had been rapid during the 1840s, but especially so after 1847. Townships in the southern part of Wellington soon had all the farms taken up, and the newer townships in the north experienced a land rush. Specific data is incomplete, but the 1851 census serves as a convenient benchmark.

In 1840, Wellington contained roughly 7,000 people. Eleven years later, the census revealed 26,800 residents, with the densest populations in Guelph, Puslinch and Erin Townships. The acreage under cultivation quadrupled during the same period.

Some of the new settlers were people of means, but most had to struggle to clear their land and plant crops, usually under the burden of heavy debts for initial living expenses, tools and seed. Settlers without mortgages on their land, or outstanding payments to the Crown Lands Department or to large landholders, were few. For commercial agriculture to be successful and profitable, farmers needed good roads to get their produce to market. The price of wheat and other commodities was established in the large markets at Toronto and Hamilton. Transportation costs from backwoods farms in Wellington had to be shouldered by the farmers who grew the crops.

The town of Guelph had, by the mid 1840s, established itself as the market town for Wellington, and it prospered as settlement increased. Guelph passed the 1,500 mark in population in 1847, and by then had four flour mills. That aided farmers somewhat in providing added value to exports from Wellington.

But even so, prices were still determined by the large provincial markets and transportation costs consumed a great deal of the price of Wellington’s produce.

Everyone agreed that improved roads were a necessity. The difficulty lay in finding someone ready to bankroll road building projects. Local taxes, though meagre by later standards, were as high as most settlers could bear, due to the general shortage of cash money. As well, provincial law placed an upper limit on the taxes that could be imposed on land, a measure put through to ease the burden on large landholders and speculators. The provincial government, funded largely by duties on imports, did not have the means to provide funds for all the necessary road projects across the province.

As early as 1838, there had been a plan to improve the route between Dundas and Guelph, spearheaded by Henry Strange and Thomas Saunders of the latter place. Voluntary subscriptions provided the money for a survey and engineering estimates, which worked out to about $5,000 per mile, an enormous sum for that period. That project never proceeded. Henry Strange died suddenly, and the economic depression of the late 1830s deterred anyone else from taking it up.

Meanwhile, Absolom Shade and James Crooks, both members of the legislature, managed to secure provincial funding for the road from Dundas to Galt (that route eventually became Highway 8). As a consequence, some of Wellington’s produce began to go to Waterloo County, and Guelph, lacking a direct route to Dundas and Hamilton, became subsidiary to Galt.

A further threat to Guelph came in 1846, when some Oakville businessmen proposed a private company to build a toll road from Oakville to Owen Sound by way of Fergus, bypassing Guelph entirely.

Good transportation routes on either side of Guelph would draw most of the business elsewhere. Fearing for their business interests, a group of Guelph’s nabobs got together in October 1846 to form a company to build a direct road to Dundas. Among them was A.D. Fordyce, warden of the District of Wellington. Several other district councillors sat on the provisional board of directors.

A second road company, with some overlap from the first, formed a few weeks later, to build a road from Guelph to Arthur. Both companies secured provincial charters in July 1847, with directors drawn from amongst the businessmen of Wellington. Several also sat on the district council. Though private companies, strong links with municipal government existed from the beginning.

James Webster, then sitting as the local MPP, managed to get grants of $2,000 for the Dundas Road and $6,000 for the Arthur road approved by the legislature. The rest of the money required for the projects was not so easy. The directors already knew, roughly, the cost of the Dundas road from the estimates of 1838. It far exceeded their combined resources. The only solution was to build the road as a public works.

In November and December of 1847, the district councils of Gore and Wellington agreed to each buy half the shares in the road company, and to issue debentures to meet the cost. That amounted to $36,000 for each. The debentures sold quickly to local investors.

Wellington district council called for tenders in July 1848. The successful bidder was Cook and Co., recent contractors on the Welland Canal. Work progressed smoothly through 1849, but Cook ran out of money before finishing the contract. To smooth over the crisis, Wellington District issued a set of debentures in five shilling, or one dollar, denominations. Cook paid his men with them, and they served as a local currency in the area. Today, surviving examples are among the prized collectors’ items of Wellington County history.

At the district council meeting in December 1850, councillors received a report that the road was in a sufficient state of repair for the opening of toll gates. Their hope was that tolls would provide sufficient funds to maintain and further improve the road, with sufficient left over to retire the debenture debt on the project.

Setting rates for toll roads always produced controversy. Most people preferred a flat rate per wagon, but that encouraged overloading, and consequently, increased damage to the road. Other systems of tolls invariably produced charges of unfairness. Others complained the rates were too high, and thereby discouraged business. That complaint found sympathy with Wellington councillors in 1852, when they brought in a new scale that reduced tolls by an average of 25%.

At the formation of Wellington County in 1854, councillors dealt with a mixed system of roads: the road from Guelph to Dundas, as far as Puslinch, was their direct responsibility, but the Guelph and Arthur Road Company and the Elora and Saugeen Road Company remained private ventures, with increasingly complex relationships with the county government.

Matters pertaining to the three main roads preoccupied Wellington County council for its first decade. The initial pattern of road company directors also sitting as councillors further complicated matters. More seriously, from a financial point of view, none of the roads came close to covering their capital, maintenance and improvement expenses through tolls. The costs, of course, inevitably fell on the property tax base.

The era of private road companies in Wellington County ended in 1864, when county councillors agreed to take over the Guelph and Arthur Road Company, which they had already been subsidizing for a decade.

Though failures as business ventures, the road companies succeeded in their initial purpose of reducing transportation costs for Wellington’s farmers, and making commercial agriculture viable. They were the key to establishing Guelph as the important town in Wellington. And they survive today as the key transportation routes in Wellington.

The Dundas and Arthur Roads are now Highway 6 (Wellington Road 46 south of Guelph). The Elora and Saugeen Road now is known as Wellington Road 7 (109 beyond Teviotdale).

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Jan. 30, 2004.

Thorning Revisited