The Toll Gates of Cameron's Creek
A few of the players
John Milne P.A. Dewar A.E. Lovelace
John MacDougall Father McGee
St. Mary's Church Maidstone)
a couple of the "doers of the deed"
“There should never have been a toll gate on this continent to incite the evil passions of naturally good citizens and lead them to the crime of arson.
Detroit Journal, July 1896
… an entire town would keep the secret.
Alexander Cameron published the virtues of a town he called Essex Centre in the Essex Record on October 3, 1872, and yet in 1881, when the Essex Chronicle wrote a history of Essex there was not one reference to his name. He had laid out the streets, lots, and had two saw mills and a train station built. He had Mr. Thornton’s Hotel at the Gosfield Townline moved beside the railway tracks where the Legion is today. Cameron referred to it as the Essex Centre Canada Southern Railway Hotel but it was later known as the Royal Hotel. He was once known as the “Earl of Essex” but after his wife died in 1875 it seems he lost interest.
Would Cameron have been given some recognition as the founder of the Town had he not done the unforgivable?
Having the lease to Talbot Road he collected tolls at Grand Marais and also Walker Rd., but in 1872 he made the decision to build two more toll gates. One at the Gosfield Townline, and then another at Malden Road. Cameron and later his Estate collected those tolls on this road that was neglected and more often than not it was impassable in the wet season. Towns people and area farmers would deeply resent his name. Mr. Lovelace, Editor of the Essex Free Press in 1895, referred to Talbot Road as "Cameron's Creek” being too dirty for bathing and not deep enough for navigation.
The toll gates were so resented that in 1895 John Milne provided land to build a "by-pass" which the town completed in record time before anyone from the gravel company could get to Essex in order to stop it. As a result receipts at the toll gate dropped to 50 cents a month and for the remainder of 1895 it appeared that the Talbot Street Gravel Company had abandoned this gate.
Mayor Dewar received word from the Cameron Estate in January 1896 that Talbot Road had been leased to a man named J. B. Cornwall, who had been given orders to build "check" gates at every street in town crossing the “creek” to catch those using the “bypass.”
Work began for an Arthur Avenue toll gate, but every morning the workmen arrived only to find all the work they had done the previous day torn down. They persisted for one week and then with no progress made, abandoned the plan. Cornwall’s next plan was to build a new gate at the west end of town by moving a small 12’ x 14’ house to the Maidstone Avenue crossing. This location would not be as easily avoided as the eastern gate and would cut off free access from the more populated west end of town.
At 11 o'clock in the evening of Wednesday, May 27th 1896, the cry of "fire" rang out through the streets of Essex. The new toll gate was consumed with fire as everyone, including the Essex Fire Brigade, ignored the alarm.
“No regrets are recorded and there are various opinions regarding the origin of the blaze, but all good people unite in saying it was struck by lightning. Other dark hints are afloat, but they are libellous, and it is dangerous to repeat them.” (Essex Free Press, A.E. Lovelace)
The west end toll gate was now gone, but Cornwall defiantly declared his plan to build a stronger, more fire proof one at Maidstone Avenue. It would be completed on July 16th 1896. For six days Cornwall, with a constable by his side, happily collected tolls.
He would question the honesty of ladies on their way to Church and threatened some with prosecution for trying to avoid paying tolls. At Maidstone, Toll gate keeper Edward Welch and Father McGee, had come to blows. The Priest had put him on the “not be served any alcohol” list that resulted in a confrontation provoking Father McGee to resort to “corporal punishment”, Welch being “well thrashed”. The next time Father McGee went through the toll gate, Cornwall was with Welch and threatened the priest with prosecution if he didn’t pay the toll.
It was at this point that the toll gate nuisance became intolerable and plans to resolve the matter took place at the Aberdeen Hotel. Only a few names of those involved have been discovered. Apparently there were 10 to 12 men which included - Robert Ellis, Charles “Nip” Little, Henry O’Connor and Arch Taylor of Maidstone. John Wortley of Gosfield, was picked to be Captain. Secrecy would be imperative as the penalty for arson could be life in prison. Roll Robinson, age 17, was too young to take part but said he was closeby watching.
The evening of Tuesday, July 21st 1896 the men went to MacDougall's Livery Stable where he provided Horses, wagons and drivers. Necessary supplies were gathered and the 10 to 12 men then blackened their faces, turned their coats inside out, put on slouch hats and old shoes and rolled up one pant leg and let the other drag in the dirt.
At 8 p.m some boys started throwing rocks at the Maidstone Avenue toll gate house with Cornwall and Mr. Tweedale inside. The rock throwing continued until 10 p.m. when the disguised men arrived to chop the building down.
Half the population of the town gathered and was cheering them on when they extricated Cornwall and Tweedale and set the gate house on fire. They left the east gate for another day, as the new gatekeeper, Mrs. Gasco, was ill.
At Malden Rd, Mr. Welch was dragged out of the Maidstone toll gate in order to light the match. The men got on the roof of Nace Halford’s Store and Harry North’s Hotel to keep it watered down and safe from fire as the toll gate burned. Harry North then invited them in for a drink before they headed out to burn the next one Walker Rd. The two ladies at the Oldcastle toll gate were so frightened at the sight of the disguised men that they ran off into the woods. It would take two days to find them.
The next day Mrs. Gasco moved out of the east end toll gate. The plan to eliminate the toll gates in and near Essex was completed on Sunday, July 26th 1896. “Cause of fire “the same as the other ones”. (Essex Free Press)
Cornwall and the representative of the Cameron Estate said they were determined to prosecute the offenders but not one person, young or old, could be found who would identify any of those involved. Since the population supported the men who did the deed, no charges were ever laid.
The Essex Free Press printed what residents of Essex felt after the events that evening -
“In the area of the destruction there were no signs of grief at the devastation, but there was indeed a merry little twinkle in the eye of the average wayfaring man as they passed with impunity the spot where formerly they had to dive into their pocket.”
Written and researched by Sharon Mulcaster, July 2010
The burning of the Toll Gates in Essex was reported in
- The Essex Free Press
- Toronto Globe
- Windsor Record,
- Detroit Journal.
Similar events took place in August 1896 near the city limits of Toronto, when two toll gates were set on fire. In September 1896, The Turnpike War in Kentucky saw 300 Toll Gates burned or chopped down in Washington County during September, October and November of 1896.
- Essex Free Press Archives
- Detroit Journal Archives
- Toronto Globe Archives
- Windsor Star Archives
- Windsor Record Archives
- Essex Record Archives
- Evelyn Couch Walker, "The Three R's of Essex - Ritches . Rags . Recovery"
- Radio Sketches of Periods - Events - Personalities from the History of Essex County - Detroit Area. Transcriptions - N. F. Morrison, Ph.D. -Essex County Historical Association
- Grace Joyce, "History of Gosfield"
- Patrick Brode, “Alexander Cameron and the flowering of the county of Essex, 1853–1893,” Essex County Hist. Soc., Occasional papers (Windsor), no.4 (1987)
Personal Interviews with
- Orpha Dutot (Robert Ellis)
- Frank Taylor (Archibald Taylor)