Photo © Unknown
Tollhouse has changed little in fifty years. Same store, same rugged individualist shopkeepers, the same landmark granite dome that climbers traverse, sometimes in a wedding dress or roller skates. There are no Starbucks or McDonalds. But, there is a museum up the road that will inspire appreciation for the people and the foothills of the central Sierra Nevada mountains.
The town has a past of some notoriety. In the 1860s there were bears and panthers in the foothills and the Monache people, Piute on the west side of the Sierra Nevada, numbered in the hundreds. Elijah Sarvers, a solitary goat herder, for whom Tollhouse Peak was originally named, was the first non-Indian to arrive. Six years later the Wood brothers started trapping and hunting along the Indian trails, but the stands of pine were so great that they soon took to splitting roof shake. As immigrants began pouring into the San Joaquin Valley and building houses, legendary amounts of lumber came down the treacherous road from the brothers' operation at Pine Ridge. At first they hired the Mono Indians to carry bundles of shake down the grade. Then in 1867 mill operator J. Humphreys employed a "gang" of Chinese laborers, 2,000 men strong to build a road and they charged people a toll: ten cents per head of loose cattle, horses, or mules, fifty cents for a horse and rider, one dollar for a buggy, and $1.50 for a wagon with a span of oxen, horses, or mules, loose sheep or hogs, two cents a head.
A village grew up around the toll house and then a boom town. J. Morgan opened a blacksmith shop, Chuck Yancey built a hotel for the teamsters, and by 1916 there was a livery stable, a general store with a lunch counter and soda fountain that sold produce from the vegetable garden, and a bar. Famous for its steep east grade, many a coach driver would ask its riders to get out and walk. Later it took a so-called muscle car an hour and half to go eight miles without vapor locking. Ski busses from the valley heading to China Peak would have to back up the first of the hairpin turns. Eventually California State Route 168 was redirected to the four lanes, fifteen minutes from top to bottom, and by-passed this pioneer community.
Thanks to the renovation efforts of the current proprietors, the town, albeit smaller, is still serving its foothill customers. In Tollhouse Market in a knotty yellow pine update of the old general store has a new stainless steel kitchen which serves grilled burgers, onion rings and shakes.To one side, almost overlooked, is the humble post office with its copper and brass letter window in operation from 1953-1960. Walk next door to G. I. Jim’s military surplus store for rugged outdoor gear and an earful of modern and bygone lore, or down to Big Dry Creek. It is rumored that there is a 300 year old tree near Tollhouse Road, still standing.