After 250 years by the road, milestones are marking time

06/24/2010 12:00 AM |

Ron Rossi, left, a member of Southold Town’s Landmark Preservation Commission, and commission vice chairman Mel Phaff with the mile marker located on the south side of the North Road, just west of Southold Town Beach. According to Mr. Phaff, the markers, which are scattered throughout the North Fork, were once nearly three feet tall, but have either sunk into the ground or were shortened when roads were regraded.

Twenty-three stone markers along Route 25, marking the miles from Laurel to Orient Point, are a legacy of the British North American colonies’ postmaster general, Dr. Benjamin Franklin. The granite stones have survived more than 250 years of change and are one of the most complete sets of original mile markers in the Northeast.

Local historians are concerned that their continued survival is far from a sure thing.

“Theoretically, a snowplow could go by and that’s it. The marker disappears,” said Ronald Rossi, a member of the Southold Historic Preservation Commission, who helped identify some of the markers as recently as this May. “What I’m interested in doing is getting the state to have an official identification for each of the markers. That way if someone damages or steals one, you’d have a way to protect it under the law. The law has teeth.”

For the last two years, Mr. Rossi has been working with the state Department of Transportation to develop a plan for protecting the markers by law. So far, he said, the response from state officials has been positive, but funding could be a potential roadblock.

“When they come up with a plan and come up with the funding, then maybe we can get something to happen,” he said. “Since we’ve found all the markers and have a handle on the problem, it may just be possible.”

Although most of the stones in Riverhead have disappeared over time, 23 of an original 30 markers still stretch east along Main Road, Boisseau Avenue and Route 48 from Laurel to Orient Point. Many of the stones, Mr. Rossi said, are visible from a passing car, though most drivers overlook them.

Local records indicate that the stones were placed during Benjamin Franklin’s service as the British crown’s deputy postmaster general for North America. According to local legend, Dr. Franklin himself traveled down the old “King’s Highway” (now Route 25) by horse and carriage, planting wooden posts every mile to show a traveler’s distance from “Suffolk Court House,” now known as Riverhead. A group of workers followed behind and replaced the posts with the large granite rocks, each marked with the number of miles from that point to “Suffolk CH.”

“They’re really quite significant,” Mr. Rossi said. “Back in colonial times, they charged for mail by the mile, and they used these mile markers to tell how far the mail was going to go. Benjamin Franklin was responsible for the northern postal system, and this became one of his projects.”

At the time, Mr. Rossi said, England’s King George II had organized two postal franchises, one for the northern colonies and one for the southern colonies. Dr. Franklin was responsible for the northern franchise and personally oversaw the completion of as many postal routes as he could.

“Franklin worked out a measuring device called a weasel so that every mile would pop,” said James Grathwohl, chairman of Southold Town’s Historic Preservation Commission. “When the little weasel went ‘click,’ he stopped the carriage and indicated to his workers where to put the marker.”

For stones that have survived more than two centuries of change, many historians believe it’s a wonder the markers are still recognizable. Most people, Mr. Grathwohl said, mistake them for roadside gravestones. Others assume they’re just rocks by the side of the road.

The five-inch-thick granite blocks stand an average of three feet above ground. The only thing, for instance that distinguishes mile marker 14, just east of Skunk Lane, from a gravestone is its unassuming inscription, “14M to SUFFOLK CH,” which can be easily overlooked by a passerby.

“They’re all over the place, if you stop to look,” Mr. Grathwohl said, “but many people just drive by and say, ‘Oh, what’s that … just somebody’s cemetery stone.'”

Although the focus of Mr. Rossi’s preservation project will be the Franklin markers, those are not the only milestones in the area. Riverhead’s Hallockville Museum Farm has one of the last remaining markers from a set planted along Sound Avenue in the mid-1800s. The Hallockville stone, whitewashed and repainted to say “15M to GREENPORT, 15M to WADING RIVER,” is on the Hallockville grounds, across the street from its original location, and is a prominent feature in museum tours.

“It may not be important to everybody,” said Mr. Rossi, “but when you have good things, interesting things, that hold significance to our history, it’s important. Especially in times when we have so much turbulence, that history is an anchor. If you know where you came from, it helps you know where you’re heading.”

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