Toll-Gates and Macadam Surfaces
Yonge Street had long been recognized as a vital transportation corridor, and politicians of both Tory and Reform persuasion agreed on the necessity of improving the road. In 1833, for example, the Upper Canada Legislature voted to "macadamize" portions of Yonge Street and other principal provincial roads. Macadamization was a revolutionary new road-building technique developed by Scottish engineer John McAdam, featuring a base of several levels of crushed stone, but without the tar-based topping associated with the word "macadam" today.
James Cull, an engineer who had built a road between Kingston and Napanee, won the contract for the Yonge Street section of the project. For a sum of £1,188, Cull agreed to macadamize a 1.6-kilometre (one-mile) test strip of Yonge Street immediately north of the York town limits. Crushed stone would be laid six metres wide and twenty-five centimetres deep (about nineteen feet wide and ten inches deep). He proposed to finish the project by November 1, 1833. But despite his previous experience, Cull seriously underestimated the costs of macadamizing Yonge Street. By the time he had received £800 on account, only 273 metres (about 900 feet) of the road were finished. The government-appointed trustees quickly grew discontented with his progress, refused to advance him further funds, and finally, on September 16, took the project away from him. 17
The trustees continued work on Yonge Street, financing the project on money borrowed against future toll revenues. Toll-gates were established along the way - No. 3 at Langstaff Corners,No. 4 to the north of Elgin Mills Road - and were let by auction annually. But the income generated by these toll-gates was not enough to cover current costs of construction. It was a Catch-22 situation. Without tolls, the money already invested could not be recovered, and little in the way of tolls could be collected until a much larger section of the road had been completed. So the borrowing of a further £35,000 was authorized in 1836 and another £100,000 in 1837. 18
Yonge Street presented special problems, with its straight-line course across the countryside without regard to natural land contours, and it ate up thousands of pounds as improvements continued over the years. "On that portion which has already been done," engineer Thomas Roy wrote of Yonge Street in 1841, "nearly as much money has been expended in cutting hills, building bridges, etc., as in road-making; yet several of the inclinations are as steep as one in fourteen." 19
By 1845, government funding for Yonge Street work was exhausted, and all construction and maintenance work ground to a halt. Travel on the road was severely hampered. "No farmer having any regard for his horses," remarked William Henry Smith in 1846, "would allow them to travel" on the highway. 20 Toll-keepers who had rented gates from the Yonge Street trustees saw their revenues fall, and the trustees were compelled to grant them compensation out of the road funds.
The original financing was based on the assumption that tolls would be sufficient to meet the interest on the debentures issued to cover construction, pay all repair costs, and build up a sinking fund sufficient to retire the debt in thirty years. By 1846, however, Yonge Street tolls of £954 for the year were insufficient even to defray the annual interest charges of £2,232. 21
In an attempt to extricate itself from this financial mess, the provincial government announced in late 1849 that Yonge Street, together with Dundas Street and Kingston Road, would be sold and that local authorities would have the first opportunity to purchase them. The government set £75,000 as a minimum price, but a confident York County Council bid £60,000, and later even reduced its offer to £50,000. The province responded by opening the bidding to private companies, and in August 1850 announced the sale of the "York Roads" to Toronto businessman James Beatty. Public outcry forced a reconsideration, but at an October auction the highways were purchased by Beatty's Toronto Road Company for £75,100.
Work resumed on Yonge Street during the early 1850s, to the delight of travellers, stagecoach operators, and Richmond Hill hotelkeepers. Macadamization was pushed north from the present-day Carrville Road/ 16th Avenue intersection, through the centre of town, and beyond to the north.
But it was soon evident that the highway's new owner was enjoying no more financial success than his predecessors. Annual interest charges continued to exceed net profits. Beatty eventually defaulted on his interest payments, and in September 1863 the provincial government once more assumed control of Yonge Street, Dundas Street, and Kingston Road. Finally, in April 1865, the province sold the York roads to the York County Council for $72,500 - about a quarter of the 1850 price. 22
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991