Fire claims 1847 toll house at Montagu Pass, but this is not the end of the road

Fire claims 1847 toll house at Montagu Pass, but this is not the end of the road

01 November 2018

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SOUTH AFRICA – Two world wars, a hungry forest fire and the sneaky hands of vandals and thieves – this is what the old Toll House on the Montagu Pass has survived in its 171 years of existence.

This week though, widespread blazes in the Southern Cape took a toll and left the stone building, and its renovators, gutted.

It was a sad sight for Gerda Stols, who together with her husband Johan before his death in 2006, decided years ago that something must be done to improve the building and subsequently spearheaded a restoration project.

Thanks to the efforts of Friends of the Toll House, the small rectangular stone building had, until Monday, welcomed tourists, residents and cyclists with coffee and pancakes as they traversed the historic 10km stretch of road through rolling green hills.

‘The fire came very fast’

Its history and location increasingly attracted school groups, christenings, a wedding reception and birthday parties.

“The fire came very fast on Monday morning,” Stols recalled of the blaze that has already claimed eight lives. “The moment the alarm went off, I realised something must have happened inside.”

They were helpless.

“The wind and fire came so fast and with such fury that it blew out all the windows and created a fire on the inside,” Stols said.

“It took about 20 minutes to burn down.”

Stols, who sipped on tea as she spoke to stave off a cold she picked up in the aftermath, said she had a lump in her throat every time she visited the blackened building.

“It was absolutely wonderful in the toll house. I could stay there my whole life.”

The Montagu Pass was a wonder for travellers in its time, cutting the journey over the mountain from at least three days to a few hours with less beast power, according to the Romance of Cape Mountain Passes book.

National monument

The toll house was built on the corner of the small dirt road for the toll master and his family, who would charge at least a penny per animal and a penny per wheel that passed.

In July 1855 a forest fire destroyed its thatch roof which was replaced with corrugated iron sheets.

Despite being declared a national monument in 1972, the building slowly fell into disrepair.

With a five-point plan of action, Stols put an advert for help in the local newspaper and was pleasantly surprised when three architects pitched up to assist.

One was Charles Westman, the grandson of the last toll master.

Already in his 80s at the time, Westman sadly never survived long enough to see the end product.

“When we started, the wooden floors had been ripped out and used for firewood and there was lots of graffiti on the walls,” said Stols.

“All the yellowwood beams had been taken down by a chainsaw, the roof was leaking and all the doors and windows were broken.”

They secured the house to avoid further damage.

Destroyed research, paperwork ‘a big loss’

As the restoration unfolded between 2011 and 2014, Stols said local residents and businesses opened their hands and hearts by donating goods and services.

Some of the items lost in the fire included a working record player from 1923 and a very old piano.

“The paperwork and research that was done, that is a very big loss to us,” said Stols.

All was not lost though as she believed their dream could rise again from the flames.

“The plans are to do the restoration as soon as possible. I have been there this morning with the architect and looked at the structure… the whole roof has fallen in and now all the poles are also burnt out.

“We don’t know what we are going to do but we are definitely going to rebuild.”

She was encouraged by the generosity of the community and their interest in seeing a piece of history preserved.

Even though it is burnt now, it is still beautiful to me.”

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