Toll roads caused considerable bickering at 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. (Note: This is the second part of a series on the early road system in Centre Wellington.)

In projecting a gravel road from Marden through Elora all the way to Lake Huron, the directors of the Elora and Saugeen Road Company set a very ambitious objective for themselves.

When it came to the practicalities of construction, their agenda was much more modest. The stretch from Marden to Elora would be done in stages over two years, and the mileage north of Elora was postponed to the indefinite future.

Edwin Kertland, the hard-drinking Elora surveyor, prepared the engineering specifications for the stretch from Marden to Ponsonby (more properly, from the junction with the Fergus road, then known as Card’s Corners, to Hurst’s Tavern).

The work involved cutting down some hills, digging ditches, installing culverts, pulling stumps, filling soft spots, and covering the road surface with gravel.

The company divided this portion of the route, about four miles, into 18 quarter-mile sections for the purpose of tendering. This was to allow smaller, local contractors to get a share of the work. One specification was that successful bidders had to take 15% of their payment in the stock of the company.

When the tenders were opened, Daniel Gilles’ bids were the lowest on all sections. He got the contract for $6,100. He was given until October 1851 to finish the job.

The company let the contracts for the section from Ponsonby to Elora in June 1851. This section was financed in part through an $8,000 loan from the county. Toll keepers began collecting money when Gilles finished his work in the fall of 1851, and the following summer Elora had a good road connection to the south.

The financial problems were not over. Not all the stock in the company was sold, and those who did make purchases fell behind on their instalments. Most buyers paid only 10% down on their shares.

The directors were disheartened when the county refused to buy stock in the company or provide further aid. Money was coming in from tolls ($1,175 in 1852-53), but much larger sources of funds had to be found if the road was to proceed north of Elora.

In the fall of 1852, the directors began pressuring the government of the Province of Canada for aid, and they tried to convince Peel and Maryborough to do the same. The company scraped funds together to start the northern portion in 1853. To help finance construction, the company defaulted on its interest payments to the county.

This move infuriated the municipalities in the county outside Centre Wellington. In effect, the taxpayers were subsidizing the company.

Surveyor David Gibson laid out a straight route between the 13th and 14th Concessions of Peel. Contracts were let for chopping the trees on the route in the fall of 1853. Gibson set up his headquarters at McCrae’s Tavern in Alma.

In the meantime, the county grew impatient about the overdue interest payments. As the major creditor, the county took over control of the company, and in 1854 it sold its interest in the Elora and Saugeen Road to Dr. William Clarke of Guelph. The Guelph and Arthur Road was in similar difficulty, and Dr. Clarke purchased control of it as well.

The result was one of the most acrimonious periods in the history of county council.

In the end, Charles Allan of Elora, who was both reeve of Pilkington and president of the Elora and Saugeen Road Company, called in some favours, got himself elected warden in 1855, and managed to get the road restored to county control, with a major voice for the company’s directors.

Chopping work was completed on the portion of the Elora and Saugeen Road through Minto township in 1855, but the entire road north of Elora remained in poor shape through the 1850s. The company made no improvements, and collected no tolls on this section. The one favourable development was that income from the Elora to Guelph section increased through the decade.

Although the Elora and Saugeen Road Company’s directors exercised some authority, major financial decisions required the approval of county council, which was the company’s largest creditor. The county was not disposed to invest more in the road.

In 1859, Elora, only recently incorporated as a village, sought permission from the provincial legislature to build a gravel road from Elora to Alma as a village project. The men behind this proposal were the same ones who owned the Elora and Saugeen Road Co. They feared that without a good road to the north, farmers would take their trade either to Fergus or to Waterloo County.

The tide turned in 1860. That year county council voted to issue $17,500 of debentures to finance road construction. Elora reeve Charles Clarke was a member of the county road committee, and he made the Elora-Alma section a priority.

William Kerr prepared a new survey and engineering specifications, and tenders were called at the end of June 1860. J. and G.H. Carter, a large contracting firm, submitted the low bid of $5,500, and had the work completed in less than three months. Completion of the road in time for the fall crops injected much business into Elora’s economy. Tolls for the first six months exceeded $1,000.

Road building and gravelling extended the improved section of the road to the Peel-Maryborough town line in 1861 and to Teviotdale in 1862. By this time the control of the road was firmly in the hands of three county road commissioners, though stockholders continued to own their shares and hope for dividends. The commissioners spent additional money on bridges: $300 in 1861 at Salem and $1,050 in 1862 on the Conestogo River bridge in Peel.

It was clear the Elora and Saugeen Road would never be a success as a business venture, and that the northern stretches of the road, with lower traffic levels, might never cover their costs, although they did feed traffic to the lower stretches. County council decided in 1862 to take over the road through Maryborough and Minto townships as a county road.

For work on the Maryborough and Minto sections, the county issued $14,000 of debentures. William Grain surveyed the project and did the engineering. The specifications called for a 16-inch layer of gravel, and a roadway 12 feet wide. Over 30,000 cubic yards of gravel went into this stretch, an immense quantity when the construction equipment consisted of wagons, shovels and wheelbarrows.

Carter the contractor had additional problems. He offended the sensitivities of protestant extremists by hiring several Catholics. This resulted in several fights, threats and a full-scale brawl at Hasting’s Hotel in Rothsay. Special constables had to be brought in to restore order.

The completion of the road to Maryborough and Peel produced a great increase in revenue, helping a financial situation that had been improving since 1860. At the end of 1863 the Elora and Saugeen Road Company was almost out of debt, and the county made plans to end what was essentially a receivership situation. The company was reorganized, with Sem Wissler of Salem as president and Charles Clarke of Elora as secretary.

Although the company was back on its feet, the road continued for only one year under private ownership. In 1864, the directors voted to sell their interest to the county for $10,000. There were repairs on the horizon, and the shareholders leapt at the chance to extricate their money from the venture.

When all the calculations had been made, those with fully paid shares received $150 for every $100 of stock. This was more than most ever expected to see, but spread over the 15-year life of the Elora and Saugeen Road Company, it represents a compound return of less than 3% per year.

The county took over the other private road companies at about the same time. The tolls, though, remained in place for another decade, until the debentures issued to buy out the road companies were paid off.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Oct. 4, 1994.



Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015