1890-2020. Preston Brook north tunnel, the Toll House. After approaching the Trent & Mersey canal to or from Runcorn laden with goods and materials, barges would need to pass through several tunnels in order to pass the rolling Cheshire landscape on their way to or from the Midlands. This toll house was one of at least two that I know of in the village, tasked with charging each canal boat as it passed though. Beyond the tunnel lies the first set of locks where the water would by all accounts be 'owned' by another canal company which at the time of the photograph was the North Staffordshire Railway Company. At this point shown the water is still shared with the Bridgewater canal, and the giving and taking of water at the meeting of the two canals was extremely regimented.
There was no tow path through the 1239 yard tunnel, so the horses were detached from the boat and lead to the south portal along the lane directly above the tunnel known as 'tunnel end', while two of the crew or paid men passed the barge through the dark tunnel by lying on planks positioned near the front of the barge and pushed with their legs all the way to the other end. It was a strenuous and time consuming job that often resulted in long queues at either side. These bottlenecks eventually became part of the driving force behind the need for the Anderton boat lift, which allowed a much quicker route from Northwich to the Mersey. It would have been in operation for a few decades by the time of the first image, drastically reducing traffic through the tunnel. Before this time it would have been unlikely to get this photograph without a waiting barge during daylight hours.
The Toll House would eventually see it's purpose begin to diminish with the introduction of engine powered barges that removed the need for workers to escort them through the tunnel, but by this time the industry had already started to die down. The railways and ship canal had drastically improved both the volume and speed of goods travel across the region and eventually the tolls would no longer provide bountiful profits for the canal owners. The structure reportedly still existed in the 1980's although it goes without saying that modern amenities would have been almost non existent and it's unlikely to have been lived in until it was demolished, leaving the bridge itself giving almost no hint of a toll house ever existing at all.
The second image shows the view from the south portal of the tunnel after passing through the entrance in the first photograph. Having now passed through, the canal boat here is heading towards lock 76 on the Trent & Mersey canal known as Dutton stop lock. The cottages above remain largely unchanged in more than a century, but the towpath has seen significant improvement in the years since the canal was repurposed for pleasure boats and the path primarily used by pedestrians.