21th Century Toll Gates: History Repeats--Tragedy or Farce?


Increasingly, it is becoming clear that Louisville’s ambitious two-bridge plan cannot be funded without tolls. Alarmingly (especially to those who are not in love with the plan), some have proposed converting existing free bridges into toll bridges to help pay for the increasingly expensive plan. Even backers of the plan offered in opposition to the bridges, the so-called “8664 plan,” have not ruled out tolls.

Now while toll-roads may not be a big deal in the Northeastern corridor, the mention of tolls in Kentucky rubs a sore spot in the state’s history. Widespread, secretly organized political violence has arisen only four times in Kentucky. First, it occurred in the 1850s when nativist anger at immigrants set Louisville afire in the 1855 riots. Later, in post-Civil war era, Kentucky saw a taste of the anti-black KKK repression of blacks that spread through the South. In the early 20th century Kentucky tobacco farmers donned hoods to burn the warehouses of the distant trusts whose pricing they saw as a danger to their way of life. However, a mere decade before, masks and firebrands were employed in another struggle: the fight against excessive tolls.

In the small-government era of the early 19th century, most Kentucky road construction was “outsourced” to private parties that built roads in order to then be able collect tolls. The legislature regularly gave private turnpike companies the right to sell stock in order to raise money construct local roads, which were later paid off by tolls. However, in most cases, citizens paid steep tolls for years after the day that the turnpike company recouped its outlays. By the end of the century, Kentuckians were fed up with toll roads. Companies often let the roads fall in disrepair, while the toll keepers continued to collect tolls. Locals sporadically took their out frustration over costly but defective roads violently, burning toll gates and harassing toll keepers.

Reacting to their constituents, the 1896 legislature (then controlled by the populist free-silver wing of the Democratic Party) passed a free turnpike law. The law mandated that county officials take over toll roads, but local officials refused to follow the law’s mandate and buy-out the turnpike companies. Their obstinacy set off a wave of violence known as the “Toll Gate War.” In dozens of central Bluegrass counties masked vigilantes on horseback used fire and dynamite to destroy toll gates, more than three hundred from some estimates. Often they were assisted by government officials, even judges, and in one case Governor William O. Bradley had to call out the state militia to stop the violence. However, the raiders ultimately made their point and counties took over the turnpike companies and abolished tolls.

While it is unlikely that Kentuckians will mount their SUVs and take the torch to toll gates on the Sherman Minton Bridge, the talk of paying money to ride bridges that have long been free may well waken a rebellious tendency in the state body public. Perhaps instead of a horse and a firebrand, the modern toll raiders will fire their up Linux server, awaken their zombie machines and launch a denial-of-service attack on the electronic toll system…

Illustration: Old Frankfort Avenue toll keepers house, now Ray Parella's Italian Cuisine