21 Aug 2014
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History Never More Than a Stone's Throw Away

It's a historical scavenger hunt for this week's "If Walls Could Talk." Long before GPS, travelers used granite miletones to find their way through Lower Merion Township.

Patch has lead you into some pretty impressive homes lately, from million dollar mansions, to a small gem currently for sale, even a few

Lower Merion Township is known for lavish homes, but what about the little things that we pass every day? Years before the antique cast iron street signs we see throughout the Township (and the subject of some debate over the past year, milestones—dating back to colonial times—were meticulously placed on three of our major roads: Lancaster Avenue, Old Gulph Mill Road, and Old Lancaster Road (Montgomery Avenue).

"Our milestones are very accurately placed," explained Ted Goldsborough, of the Lower Merion Historical Society. "You can get in your car today and the odometer is right on."

Benjamin Franklin, while he was the Colonial Postmaster, insisted on having milestones erected to help expedite the mail. They prevented travelers from being taken advantage of at toll roads, and they proved to be the ideal way to give directions to your business or home.

"You were known by your mile marker since there were no streets," said Gerald Frances, President of the Lower Merion Historical Society. Businesses such as the original William Penn Inn were built near milestones to increase business.

Old Lancaster Road is one of the oldest roadways in the country, and its milestones were probably erected around 1740. The Old Gulph Mill Road stones were placed in 1793 and are commonly referred to as the "William Penn Milestones," because Penn's insignia is found on the back. They were originally used to mark the Mason Dixon line, but were too big to just dispose of—so they were recycled, and the blank side had the mile carved into it.

The size of the stones varied. Originally, they were designed to be seen at eye level if one was on horseback, but after years of being cracked and reburied at a lower height, the majority of the stones are only about two feet tall. Travelers could also tell what town it they were in based on the design of some of the stones.

While these stones were measured accurately, their functionality was far from perfect. Leaving one road and taking a wrong turn, for example, you could rely on them for accurate distances, but there were no features to differentiate the #9 marker on Old Gulph Road with, say, with the #9 on Old Lancaster.

The Lancaster Avenue set was placed in 1795 by massive landowner and farmer Joseph Price ( a house he built in Narberth stills stands on Montgomery Avenue). These markers were designed to tell the mileage as it counted down to the 30th Street Bridge in Center City. They are each carved with the miles and "M To P" for "miles to Philadelphia." The mile makers helped settlers find their way back to the city for supplies.

"We were the way west," said Francis. "People had to find their way."

All of the stones except for the Old Lancaster #7 are original. After uncovering a 1953 photo showing the missing milestone, some questioned its whereabouts. In 1995 the Bala Cynwyd Civic Association went to a tombstone maker and had the reproduction built.

The Lower Merion Historical Society has been working towards the preservation of the milestones for many years. Our community is said to have the largest collection of originals in the nation. Several decades ago, Haverford lost all of their markers due to roadwork. According to Francis, the roads were widened and the stones discarded.

The difficulty with maintaining the milestones is that they are mostly on private property. In 1995 the Society was given a Community Development Block Grant so they could find, repair, and relocate them closer to the road. Afterward, the Township was going to attain them through "friendly" eminent domain, but the legality of taking any property was challenged and the issue was tabled.

While the milestones are designated as historical objects by the State of Pennsylvania, the property owners have the right to remove them if they choose. Several homeowners with milestones show them with pride, and have shaped their modern landscaping around them.

Currently the Lower Merion Historical Society and the Historical Commission are looking to amend the current way Lower Merion classifies historical items—to ensure objects like the milestones are treated the same way as homes. Christian Busch, the Chair of the Historical Commission, is working toward making this change. Other items that would be preserved are the vintage cast iron street signs, and the "Keystone markers" that welcome travelers to our towns.

"We don't want to lose our history," said Gerald Frances, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society.

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