The people of Western New York have been fighting tolls on roads for about as long as there have been roads.
In 1797, early Western New York pioneers began hacking through the wilderness along an ancient Native American trail to create what we now call Main Street, starting at Buffalo Harbor and running to Batavia.
Its early importance as a travel route was underscored during the War of 1812, when the Village of Buffalo emptied out along Main Street as British soldiers torched all but one structure in the village. Many stopped at the home of Erastus Granger (his family farm was donated to become Forest Lawn Cemetery), many continued out to Williamsville and Clarence.
As a thoroughfare traveled regularly by men on horseback, families in carriages, and for-profit stagecoach lines, the road was in constant need of repair.
In 1838, the Buffalo-Williamsville Road was Macadamized, an early form of paving where crushed stones were pressed into the roadway. The work was done by a private company, which in turn collected tolls for the upkeep of the road.
The first tollhouse was built at Main and Delavan when the road opened. Eighteen years later, as the city expanded, the toll house was moved to Main and Steele streets. Steele Street was later renamed Kensington Avenue, and its current intersection with Main Street is part of the complicated Main/198/33 exchange between Sisters’ Hospital and Canisius College.
An 1880 letter to the editor reads like it could have been written by someone today.
“As one draws near the model structure called the tollgate, he will observe the white hand outstretched and the sorrowful, pleading countenance of the gatekeeper asking for eight cents.”
City fathers, who had been investing heavily in the building of a park system, were keenly aware that anyone taking Main Street to Delaware Park was being forced to pay the toll. After years of wrangling, the city eventually took over maintenance of the road and eliminated the toll, making a ride of the park meadow free, but also opening up development in areas like the Parkside and Central Park neighborhoods, which were more desirable now that one didn’t have to pay to get there.
Main Street’s last tollgate was still in operation for another couple of decades. The small cabin just before Getzville Road and what is today Daemen College and Amherst High School collected its last toll in 1899.
The area’s last in-use tollhouse was torn down in 1914 when Erie County decided to pave the Genesee Street in brick all the way to the county line. The Town of Cheektowaga ordered the 1860s tollgate removed. It was about a mile past the city line, near Genesee and Harlem. It was moved there from Genesee and Fillmore when the city’s boundaries were expanded in 1854.
Broadway had been a toll road on the way into Lancaster until it was paved by the state around 1910. The tolls, collected at Broadway and Union, had been used for upkeep of a single lane of planks between Lancaster and Buffalo.