The Tollkeeper

Jan. 31, 2021

Davenport Road follows the bottom of the scarp that marks the old shoreline of Glacial Lake Iroquois. The Native Peoples who lived here for centuries had a portage trail that went between The Don River and The Humber River and connected to The Carrying Place Trail. Europeans found it convenient to use the same trail and it continues on its original route. John McGill built the first home accessed from the trail in 1797 and named it Davenport after Major Davenport who served at Fort York. It stood on the top of the scarp on the north east side of present Davenport and Bathurst.

In 1833 thirteen kilometres of Davenport Road was paved with planks. Five small cottages were built by the plank road company to house the men who were hired to collect the tolls. The tollkeeper lived with his family in the cottage which was situated directly beside the road. Known as Toll Gate #3, the little three room cottage that was built for the tollkeeper at Davenport Road and Bathurst Street was only 20 feet by 30 feet in size. It is listed as being the twelfth oldest residence remaining in Toronto and some sources claim it to be the oldest tollkeeper’s cottage in Canada, perhaps the only one. It is listed on Wikipedia as being built between 1827 and 1830 but this would seem to predate the planking of the road making this date too early. It is more likely to be 1832 or 1833. The space between the two posts in front of the house in the picture below represents the width of the road but the boards that represent the toll gate have unfortunately been knocked to the ground.

The inside was originally heated by a single fireplace which was later replaced with a pot-bellied stove. This meant that only the main room was heated. The two bedrooms would have been pretty cold on a winters night. During the 1860’s John Bullmin and his wife Elizabeth took up the position at the toll gate. They lived in this house with their seven children. One bedroom was used by John and Elizabeth while the other was used by the four daughters who slept two to a bed. The three boys slept in the main room and enjoyed the benefits of the fireplace, if not the comforts of a bed.

In 1851 the fees for using the plank road were based on the mode of transportation and the amount of livestock you had with you. A simple pedestrian paid no fees but if they had a horse it was two pence. A wagon pulled by a mule was 3 pence which went up to 6 pence if it was pulled by two horses. A pedestrian leading 20 cows or sheep would pay 1 pence. The toll keeper had to keep meticulous records to get their small percentage and the record books from this tollkeeper’s home still survive. These toll rates were likely unchanged a decade later when the Bullmin family arrived. John left his wife and children to perform household chores, fetch water from the Taddle Creek and collect the tolls while he worked 6.5 hectares of land to supplement their income. His wife used to churn and sell about 50 lbs. of butter per year from the family cows.

When roadside tolls were abandoned in 1896 the government placed road maintenance under the care of the municipalities. John Bullmin died in 1867 and is buried in The Necropolis while his wife survived him until 1912. The cottage became obsolete in 1896 and was sold to someone who moved it near Howland and Bathurst as a private home. A newer addition later obscured the original cottage and by the 1990’s it was in danger of demolition for a high rise development. A neighbour who recalled the story of the little cottage was instrumental in its being sold to a heritage group for a dollar. The TTC allowed them to move it to the Wynchwood Streetcar Barns where it was restored over a six year period. In 2002 it was moved to a small park kitty-corner to its original location. The house opened as a museum on July 1, 2003 with a small addition on the back for an interpretive centre.

The painting below is from 1875 and is by Arthur Cox. The vantage point is the top of the old escarpment looking toward the south east. The area below the hill is still farmland at the time and the church spires in Yorkville can be seen in the distance. The cottage sits with the front porch on the very edge of the road and the toll gate stretching across Bathurst. This picture was taken from taylorhistory.com.

There are a few other hints to our toll road systems of the past that can still be found throughout the city. In 1841 John Grubb founded the Weston Plank Road Company to improve his local roads by covering them with a layer of thick wooden planks. A few years later he also formed the Albion Plank Road Company. The building that the Weston Plank Road Company operated out of was built in 1846 and still sits on its original location about a kilometre south of the 401 on Weston Road.

The Gore and Vaughan Plank Road Company was established in 1855 to build a plank road along Dufferin Street. The road was to be built of local wood and various saw mills were engaged along the route to cut and prepare the planks. The picture below shows one exposed end of the plank road along with one of the steel spikes that held it together.  The planks were sixteen feet long and held together with spies over two feet long though this section of the road.

Davenport Road is unique because it existed long before the time of the Europeans and still retains the Tollkeeper’s Cottage as a reminder of its era as a plank road.

Further reading and more pictures: The Gore and Vaughan Plank Road and Elm Bank and The Necropolis

Google Maps Link: The Tollkeeper’s Park

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