Torontonians Were Pissy About Toll Roads Back in the 1800s, Too by Adam Bunch

So that's what a toll house in Toronto looked liked in the 1800s. This one was apparently on the northeast corner of Bloor and Dundas. But the very first one we ever built in the city was on Yonge Street, at King, back in 1820. That's when there were still only about a thousand people living here, in a tiny little town nestled between the lake and the ancient, wild forest that had stood on this land for thousands of years. It hadn't even been three decades since the first British soldiers showed up to chop down trees and clear space for Upper Canada's new capital. So, in those days, even Yonge Street and King Street were just rough, muddy paths. And their intersection, now at the bottom of a canyon of skyscrapers, wasn't much more than a crossroads in the countryside, a few blocks west of the heart of the town. Building those early, rudimentary roads and keeping them passable was a pretty big job; collecting tolls helped pay for it. Soon, there were toll houses all over Toronto.

That, of course, pissed some people off. And some of them tried to avoid paying tolls altogether. That was a common practice back then — and not just in Toronto. Cornelius Krieghoff, one of the most famous and iconic early Canadian artists, has a whole series of paintings about people whipping their horses up to full speed so they could blow past toll houses without paying. Back in Wales, people rioted, men dressing up as women to destroy toll-gates under the cover of darkness. They called themselves Rebeccaites after Genesis 24:60: "And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her... let thy seed posses the gate of those which hate them."

In Toronto, things could get tense too. Along Queen Street, there was an important toll house built at what's now Ossington but was then the end of Dundas, the major road stretching west all the way to London. To the south of the toll-gate was an enormous military reserve – and Fort York. So if you wanted to sell stuff to the British army, you had to pay a toll every time. This especially annoyed one particular lumber dealer. His men frequently got into fights with the toll collectors – sometimes there was violence. Finally, the lumber dealer bought the plot of land to the east of the toll house and built his own damn path through the woods. That way, his men bypassed the toll-gate altogether. He called his new road Rebecca Street, in honour of those Welsh rebels. And it's still there today, branching off Ossington a block north of Queen.

There were toll houses in Toronto for nearly a hundred years. But by the end of the 1800s, the last of them were closed as part of an agreement to let people from outside the city sell their goods at the St. Lawrence Market free of any fees. (You can still visit one, though: the "tollkeepers cottage" was recently restored on the north-west corner of Davenport and Bathurst.)

Fifty years after that, some people, including our mayor, would propose building the Gardiner Expressway as a toll road, but that part of the plan never happened. So it wasn't until the 1990s that Bob Rae's provincial government would build the 407 to raise funds for the government (and then Mike Harris' government would essentially just sell it off to a private consortium to help balance his budget just before an election). It was the first toll road in the world without gates, operating electronically instead. And it was the first toll road in Toronto in more than century.

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

This post originally appeared on the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, which tells stories about the history of Toronto. You can read more highlights from it here, or visit it yourself here.


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