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A Historic Sense Of Direction

David K. Leff

April 11, 2010

Scores of stone tablets inscribed with numerals and initials stand quiet sentinel along Connecticut's two-lane blacktops. Marking distances along roads that have served since Colonial days, many of these milestones are more than two centuries old. Some are obscured by brush and detritus, but many more — though rarely noticed — are clearly visible to thousands of motorists who pass them each day.

Typically two- to three-feet tall, a foot to 18 inches across the face, and three to six inches thick, these mile markers resemble modest headstones with their inscription turned toward the pavement. Though most commonly made of brownstone, some are cut from local gray gneiss or granite.

Generally, they are marked in Roman or Arabic numerals with the distance to the county seat given as an initial, such as "H" for Hartford or "N L" for New London. Thus, travelers passing through an area of houses, small shopping plazas and offices on Route 10 in Plainville will find a monument marking 12 miles to Hartford at the junction of Betsey Road because it lies in Hartford County. Farther south on Route 10, a weather-worn stone in front of Hamden's Mount Carmel Cemetery reads nine miles to New Haven because it's located in New Haven County.

Milestones are hardly uniform; for example, a series on Route 49 in Voluntown and North Stonington doesn't indicate distance to a town, but rather to "P B" which signifies Pawcatuck Bridge at the Rhode Island line. A gray marker on a grassy slope beside Route 202 in New Milford gives two distances: 49 miles to Hartford and 86 to New York. Farther down this same road in Litchfield, a similar stone standing on a neatly-manicured bank lawn gives not only the distance between the cities but the name of the planter and the date "1787."

Milestones go back at least to Roman times. Here in Connecticut, as early as 1767, state law required their installation by local selectmen "near the side of the common traveling road," although no funds were appropriated for this purpose. Markers replaced irregularly situated cairns, much to the benefit of "the saddle-sore horseback rider, the weather-beaten stagecoach driver, and the foot-weary itinerant," according to one scholar. Many were later planted by private turnpike companies. Today's metal highway signs bearing the distance to various locations and the mileposts (often graduated in tenths of a mile) on interstate highways, are direct descendants of old milestones.

Although many ancient stones have either fallen victim to road widening, vehicle crashes and vandalism or have found their way into house foundations and terraces, the remainder are increasingly celebrated as important historical artifacts with an almost talismanic mystery and appeal. Some have been retired to museums; others are honored where they have stood for generations.

On Route 6, Plymouth has created a pocket park around a brownstone monument that gives the distance to Hartford and Litchfield. Surrounded by flowers and shrubs, there's a large sign describing the marker's provenance. The gracious, white clapboard Longwood Country Inn in Woodbury trumpets its authenticity via the milestone embedded in its front stone wall, describing it as "an excellent specimen of a vanishing reference to our nation's early commerce and communication."

Bristol officials recently worked with the State Department of Transportation and the developer of a Taco Bell on Route 6 to save the 14 mile marker to Hartford. The foot-high brownstone monument could easily have been destroyed but now sits in a well-landscaped place of honor in front of the restaurant. The stolid stone offers a breathtaking contrast to the brightly colored restaurant and is wonderfully emblematic of changes in our culture.

In the early 1970s, DOT had a short-lived program to find and replace lost milestones. Several roads in eastern Connecticut received replacements, with pink granite substituting for sandstone. Some are easily found on Route 85 in Colchester and Salem where they've begun to show signs of weathering and splotches of lichen.

Despite their small size, milestones have gained ground as powerful symbols of place. An unusual example is the brownstone tablet planted by a Wethersfield man to mark the distance from his Griswoldville home to Hartford. No ancient milestone ever occupied the spot, but he created the monument out of a sense of community pride.

Given the vagaries of time, it's remarkable that so many milestones still survive. It's unlikely our current crop of signs will last as long once they become historical vestiges in a future where every vehicle and pedestrian with a phone has a GPS. But old milestones will await discovery and rediscovery by anyone willing to look. There's no telling what else we'll find as we search.

•David K. Leff is a member of the Place Board of Contributors and the author of two nonfiction books and a volume of poems. His work can be found at www.davidkleff.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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