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A toll gate on Yonge Street near North Toronto Station in 1875.

Toronto Public Library

Toronto Mayor John Tory's failed bid to toll the city's two main expressways, blocked by a once-supportive Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, was praised as bold and innovative. But more than a century ago, an eerily similar political drama was playing out – in reverse.

Throughout most of the 19th century, tolls were a fact of life across Ontario, and had to be paid by all users of major roads in and out of Toronto. That's how the province's first major roads were financed, built and maintained. In the days when they resembled sleepy country lanes, Yonge Street, Bloor Street, Dundas Street, Davenport Road and Kingston Road were all toll roads, dotted with cottages where the tollkeepers lived.

The prices seemed small, even at the time, but they added up to significant sums for farmers who paid them regularly: It cost five cents in 1896 to take a horse and wagon each way up or down Yonge Street between York Mills and Aurora, according to The Globe's accounts at the time.

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By the 1880s, tolls had grown increasingly unpopular. There were reports of angry farmers burning down tollkeepers' cottages. The Ontario Legislature was being pressed – by some in the City of Toronto, among others, it was said – to abolish tolls all together and put all roads under the purview of local municipalities.

While doing this would make the ride into Toronto cheaper, it also dawned on the farmers of Markham Township that their own municipality might have to cover the costs of the roads. And that might mean – gulp – new taxes.

"A great many people were alarmed by the word 'tax,'" The Globe said in its account of a December, 1887, ratepayers meeting at Victoria Hall in Unionville, where Markham Township's reeve, Robert Bruce, tried to lay out the limited "revenue tools" then available.

"One scheme was to abolish tollgates and make no provision for the maintenance of the roads, another was to retain the tolls, another was to tax all [York] county equally for the maintenance of the roads," The Globe reported. The reeve himself favoured abolishing tolls and bringing in a "graded tax" that would see those in municipalities closest to the roads in question pay more.

"The tollgate system was a vicious one, and it must not be forgotten that under it they were paying for the support of twelve or thirteen families of gatekeepers," Bruce told the crowd.

He soon faced questions from the room, including from Colonel William Button, presumably the prominent local politician and York County magistrate for whom nearby Buttonville was named, who asked what guarantee could be given that "money would not be wasted if the roads were maintained by taxes?"

Bruce suggested firing the "unnecessary" roads engineer to save money and said that "they could save the expense of hiring men to remove pebbles from the road, which might as well remain there; and they need not follow the practice of clearing the snow from the ditches every time there was a snowfall."

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As politicians debated the issue over the years, some of those angry about tolls took matters into their own hands. Many simply whipped their horses up to full speed to blow past tollkeepers. Others petitioned their government for special exemptions.

According to the Feb. 3, 1866, edition of The Globe, the roads subcommittee for York County – which then included Toronto and surrounding municipalities – decided to ignore pleas from "certain ratepayers of the city residing east of the Don Bridge," among others, for a break on toll fees.

Not even clergymen were to be spared: "With regard to the petition of Thomas Cosford, John Lane and others, Your Committee cannot recommend that Ministers of the Gospel have any further exemption with regard to tolls."

But public anger mounted. York County would eventually decide the tolls, which were no longer covering the increasing costs of road maintenance anyway, had to go all together.

In 1896, the county passed a bylaw banning tolls and shifting the costs of the roads to the county's member municipalities as recommended by Liberal premier Sir Oliver Mowat. The plan was approved by the Ontario Legislature, which was also offering other municipalities across the province cash to buy out their private toll roads.

At the lengthy county council meeting that resolved what The Globe called the "much-vexed toll roads question," York's reeve gave a "vigorous speech" arguing that "he could not understand how a Council, of whom the majority were Liberals – a party of freedom from restrictions and in favour of free trade – could be in favour of such a nuisance as toll gates."

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Seems the Liberal government of Ms. Wynne, 121 years later, now agrees.

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