Toll Roads. In Indiana, they were a way of life for over half a century. The reason they started was very simple. The counties, after having the state build a road for them, found themselves in a bind when it came to maintaining those roads. So the solution became to sell the roads to private companies, and let them do the work of maintaining the road.
By the 1880’s, the non-existent love affair with the toll road companies was becoming just flat out hatred. Citizens, mainly farmers, were tired of paying to get to the city. This led to just ignoring the toll houses, or finding another way to get to town. This led to the toll companies to lose money. Both sides were arguing for legislation to eliminate toll roads. Residents to make travel cheaper. Businessmen in town to eliminate what they saw as a tax on people to use their businesses. And toll road companies to throwing money at the roads. This led to the counties purchasing these old toll roads back, which I covered in the article “Toll Roads, And State Takeover.”
At one point, Marion County had over 200 miles of toll roads. The county started buying the roads back one at a time. The last road to be purchased, as reported in the Indianapolis Journal of 13 August 1896, was the Pleasant Run Toll Road. The entire four mile length of the road was purchased for $100 a mile. The Pleasant Run Toll Road purchased started at what is now 21st Street and Arlington Avenue, going east for those four miles to end at the Mitthoefer Free Gravel Road. Bet you can’t guess what that road is called today.
The National Road east of Indianapolis started on the way to free road status in September, 1889. The Indianapolis News of 19 September 1889 reported that the “the owners of the Cumberland Gravel Road turned the road between this city and Irvington over to the county this morning and it is now a part of the free gravel road system.” Another benefit of the turnover, at least to Irvington, is that the next day, the Citizen’s Street Railway Company would be granted permission to build a street car line along Washington Street/National Road to Irvington. The plan at the time was to build the street car tracks along the south edge of the road, leaving a 16 foot wide path on the north side of the road for drivers.
In the very same issue of the Indianapolis News, it was reported that “there has been a turnpike war on the Three-notch or Leavenworth road, leading south from Indianapolis to Johnson County.” Residents were claiming that the road was in disrepair, raising money to fight the owner of the turnpike. Many people were running the gates along the road, as there was an agreement to not pay tolls. “At the second gate from the city the pole was cut down by the ‘opposition,’ and there has been trouble all along the line.” A court case in Franklin, the day before, saw the toll road company winning, and the people paying tolls again.
An editorial in the Indianapolis News of 22 June 1892, calls for the remaining toll roads to be taken over by the county. It goes on to talk about the “shun pikes,” local roads built to avoid paying to use the toll roads. The first such “shun pike” in Marion County was English Avenue. It was improved by locals as a way to Irvington without using the Cumberland Toll Road. The next one was Prospect Street, from Fountain Square east.
One toll road that came in from the north became so valueless that the owner of the road tried to give to the county free of charge. Apparently, this wasn’t jumped on by the county commissioners. So the owner went to Noblesville, and had the deed for the toll road transferred, legally, to Marion County. It took twelve months after the deed was registered for the county commissioners to realize that the transfer had even taken place.
The Indianapolis News was the newspaper that was arguing, per an editorial of 22 January 1883, against the county buying the toll roads back. “Why should any county purchase a toll road and make it free? Those who never use it ought not to be taxed to make it free to to (sic) those who benefit by it. While it is a toll road, those who use it pay for it, as they ought.” My, how things can change in less than a decade.
It shouldn’t be lost on people that as the toll roads were being eliminated, the “Good Roads Movement” was starting. While this movement was started by both the post office and riders of bicycles, it would lead directly to what would be known as the Auto Trail era.
Toll roads reached in all directions from the city. In the end, most of the major roads that we use today have been in place for almost two centuries…and had spent time as a toll road. I recommend checking out the following map, which shows the improved roads as of 1895 (Palmer’s Official Road Map of Marion County, Indiana).