By David Nilsen
On August 20, 1880, Monroe Roberson was hanged on the grounds of the Greenville courthouse for the murder of Wiley Coulter. He was and is the only person ever executed in Darke County, and his hanging was quite the public spectacle. The day of his death represented the highest single-day income for the toll gate on Greenville-Gettysburg Turnpike one mile east of town. The toll house at the patch of ground then known as Cedar Point collected $10 that day, and normally collected only $60 in a month.
The network of roads connecting Darke County’s towns and villages in the middle of the 19th century was inadequate to the needs of the growing population, and the roads that did exist were rough and often impassable. In 1853, it was agreed to set up toll gates, under the ownership of a turnpike company, for the collection of fees that would be put toward expanding and improving the county’s roads. Known toll gates were established at six locations–Cedar Point just east of Greenville (more on this location below), Palestine Road (believed to be present day Route 36 W.), present day State Route 502, Union City Pike (believed to be present day Route 571 W.), Preble-Darke County Line, and on the hill west of New Harrison.
The majority of these toll routes were shut down over the next few decades, but the toll gate on the Greenville-Gettysburg Pike lingered on until almost the twentieth century, closing on January 29, 1898. The route from Troy to Greenville, which was first established in 1811, ran south of the Greenville Creek from Troy until it got to Gettysburg, at which point it crossed the waterway and ran on the north side of the creek roughly along the present day path of U.S. Route 36 to Greenville. In 1853, the toll gate was established at Cedar Point, near where 36 and 571 now part ways. Before the U.S. Route 127 overpass was completed in 1970, the area was hillier than it is now and was leveled out for the construction of the modern highways. The Greenville-Gettysburg Pike was one of the only routes into Greenville from the east, and it remained profitable long after the other county toll stations were closed down.
Tolls were laughably low by modern standards: 1 cent per mile for a rider on horseback, 1 1/2 cents for a light buggy, 2 cents for broad-tread wagons with two horses, 3 cents for narrow-tread wagons with two horses. A round trip to Gettysburg for these largest teams was 28 cents (apparently a discount was offered, as this round trip was nearly 22 miles). Yearly tickets, the equivalent of the electronic passes truckers and frequent travelers use to bypass modern toll gates on highways, were also available. A sign at the New Harrison toll house specifies the following penalty for ignoring the toll gate: “Toll must be paid in advance, by order of county or we must pull the gate on you. $5.00 fine for riding or driving through gate faster than a walk.”
Though these toll houses served a role in elevating the quality of travel in the county, they fell out of favor as the nineteenth century came to a close. The last to close was the one on the road to Gettysburg at Cedar Point, and it had outstayed its welcome years before it was actually closed down. By 1890 the income from this station was no longer sufficient for the pike’s parent company–The Greenville and Gettysburg Turnpike Company–to maintain the roadway, bridges, ditches, and culverts to the level needed for public safety and reliable transport. An article in a December 1891 Greenville paper (most likely the Advocate, though the surviving clipping bears neither the name of the publication nor the author) gives this damning description of the situation:
“This only toll pike of Darke County is becoming a nuisance to both patrons and owners. The bridges and culverts are becoming unsafe. The long bridge over Greenville Creek has been condemned, and it is authoritatively announced that the company will transfer ownership to the county if the Commissioners will agree to place a new bridge over Greenville Creek.”
The conditions of the road and the seemingly unwarranted tolls reached a point that led many people to take long detours around the toll gate to avoid the fees. In a Cincinnati Enquirer article from January 30, 1939, a local resident recalled the owner of the turnpike company himself using side roads to beat the toll. Ernest O’Dell had operated this last remaining toll gate for many years and was 65 years old when he was interviewed for the article, but he declined to reveal the name of this savvy, if somewhat duplicitous, businessman.
No one was sad at the prospect of this last toll gate disappearing. An otherwise business-like notice in the Advocate in 1892 updating the state of negotiations to close the toll gate concludes with this humorous line: “…it is hoped that the Commissioners will be able to make some reasonable arrangement to get rid of this relic of injustice and old-fogyism.” This closing had been anticipated for some time. The 1891 article mentioned earlier concluded with these prophetic words: “Farmers in the vicinity…will gladly hail the day when the matter is closed up and the pike made a free public highway.”
Finally, a deal was reached. For legal reasons not specified the pike was sold first to local farmer Frank Grimes in early 1898 for $5 (which had been collected by the county commissioners and given to Grimes to pay with) and was then handed over to the county on pre-arranged agreement. An article from the Democratic Advocate of January 29, 1898,expressed what one assumes was the popular opinion of the day on the toll’s closing:
“At last Darke County can step to the front and claim to have been redeemed from the depths of barbarism. The Greenville & Gettysburg turnpike has been purchased by the people and is now a thing of the past.”
The article concludes with this absolute declaration: “The road was declared free about 10 o’clock and there is not a particle of sorrow being expressed by any one over the matter.” Every roadway in Darke County was now free. The toll gates were history.
The Darke County toll gates are a curious piece of history mostly lost to time. None of the original houses or gates still exist, and even the ground where the last gate operated looks drastically different from how it would have in 1898. The hills and valleys near Cedar Point were smoothed out and reformed close to half a century ago to accommodate the 127 overpass and its exit ramps, as well as the intersection of 36 and 571. A motorist traveling from Gettysburg to Greenville will pass the point of the old toll gate without ever knowing it was there, and thank goodness we can travel around the county now without paying fees. The toll gates are now nearly forgotten.
Thank you to Carolyn Fisher of the Greenville Public Library genealogy department for assistance with researching this article.
The following publications and articles were used for research:
Democratic Advocate, January 1898. Date not specified but believed January 30. Author not specified.
Cincinnati Enquirer, January 29, 1939. Author not specified.
Greenville Advocate, late 1969 or early 1970. Date not specified. Article by county editor John E. Oliver.
Greenville newspaper, believed to be Advocate, December 1891. Date and author not specified.
The History of Darke County, Ohio by W. H. McIntosh, 1880. W. H. Beers & Co., Chicago.
Gettysburg, Ohio, Darke County, 1808-1976 by Glenn Welch. 1976.