J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 07, 2012

Milestones of Greater Boston, Then and Now

Last week Matt Rocheleau reported for Boston.com on the state government’s plan to restore a colonial milestone along Harvard Avenue in Allston that was damaged by a truck. I knew that Charles Bahne, author of the just-published Chronicles of Old Boston, has studied milestones and other early road markings around Boston, so I asked him for his reaction. Charlie kindly supplied this guest blogger essay.

I’m glad to see that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is overseeing the milestones now, and that the Massachusetts Historical Commission is involved in plans for preserving this one. I’m pleasantly surprised that they have a count of surviving stones— 47 known to exist in situ. I’m sure that there were many more than 99 erected in the colonial era.

The article repeats the myth that the stones mark the “distance from a stone near City Hall in downtown Boston”—referring to the Boston Stone on Marshall Street. All of the colonial stones in the immediate Boston area were erected before 1735, thus before the Boston Stone was set in a public place. The actual zero point was the northwest corner of the Old State House, today’s State and Washington Streets.

It also does not appear that the Allston 6-mile stone was ever part of a mail delivery system; it was erected before the establishment of an official colonial post office and was never along any of the established post roads.

Rather, most of the stones in the immediate Boston area were erected by prominent political figures, such as Samuel Sewall, Jonathan Belcher, and Paul Dudley. I’m guessing that those men saw the milestones partly as a public service, and partly as a billboard advertising their beneficence—just as we see signs near highway construction projects that give the names of government officials today.

There were originally eight milestones along the road from Boston to Cambridge (Harvard Square). Of these, the stones at 1, 2, and 3 miles are now lost. I assume that the 1- and 2-mile stones—and possibly the 3 as well—were lost during the siege of Boston, since they were in a hotly contested area with entrenchments on both sides.

The 4-mile stone still stands on Huntington Avenue in Roxbury. The 5-mile stone is on Harvard Street in Brookline. The 6-mile stone is referenced in this article. The 7-mile stone is on North Harvard Street in Allston. And the 8-mile stone is at the corner of Garden Street & Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge (slightly moved from its original location in the middle of Harvard Square).

I’ve seen the 3-mile stone on Centre Street in Roxbury and the 5-mile stone at Monument Square (Centre & Eliot Streets) in Jamaica Plain. And of course the “Parting Stone” (not a milestone, but it indicates which route went where) stands at Eliot Square in Roxbury.

I have a copy of an article from the Brookline Historical Society in 1909 reporting the location of several then-existing stones along other highways in Roxbury, Dorchester, Milton, Quincy, Braintree, Canton, Jamaica Plain, and Walpole, in addition to the ones I just mentioned. There is an old milestone in Arlington, near Arlington Heights, which reads simply “8,” and I can’t figure out where that number refers to.

The stones referred to in the article along the Boston Post Road were indeed set up under the instruction of Benjamin Franklin, and in some cases directly under his field supervision. They were erected much later than the stones mentioned in earlier paragraphs.

The Post Road follows U.S. 20 west (with a few modern bypasses) from Watertown Square to about Northborough. At that point U.S. 20 diverges to the south of the Post Road, which goes directly through Worcester. West of Worcester the Post Road follows Mass. Route 9 for several miles, then some other highways, and then rejoins U.S. 20 west of Palmer. In the Springfield area some of the Post Road has been designated as Route 20A.

There were two other routings of the Boston Post Road, one going southwest from Dedham towards Hartford, and one going south from Dedham towards Rhode Island. And in the early nineteenth-century another set of milestones was erected along turnpikes, including the Worcester Turnpike, now Route 9.

As for the sad story of the Allston stone, until about fifteen or twenty years ago it was fairly well protected simply because the city had installed parking meters in that block. The meters defined the parking spaces so that the stone was relatively safe from “attack” by motorized vehicles. When the parking meters were removed, the parking spaces were no longer defined, so people continued to parallel-park in spaces of random length and positions. As a result the milestone was frequently hit and scratched by cars and trucks, a fact which I observed circa 1999. Thus I wasn’t wholly surprised to see that this accident had happened last August.

The other surviving stones along the Roxbury-Allston-Cambridge route are all set back behind the sidewalk, relatively safe from vehicular incursions.

Thanks, Charlie! Part of the plan for restoring the Allston stone is to move it back from the road by about a foot, which would provide a little more protection.

TOMORROW: Milestones on the web.


J. L. Bell said...

For folks on the go, Charles Bahne’s Chronicles of Old Boston is available in editions for the Kindle and iPad. The publisher has more information and links.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article. I have always wondered about these stone markers.

Daud said...

Charlie, I've often wondered about this business of the North-west corner specifically being point zero. First of all, I'm surprised they could be that specific. But I've also wondered what the source is that tells us that.

PS. My current location is approximately 30 feet away from the center.

Charles Bahne said...


I'm not sure where I read about the "northwest corner" part now, but I do recall seeing it some years ago. The use of the Old State House as the zero-point is documented in Samuel Sewall's diary for July 14, 1707, and also another diary entry for "three weeks later", both as quoted in the 1909 Proceedings of the Brookline Historical Society (available on Google Books).

Sewall's diary entries refer to the erecting of the 1- and 2-mile stones at his direction on those dates. My assumption is that subsequent stones were measured from these first two stones (and that they weren't remeasured from some other source.

And of course, since the stones were erected in 1707, Sewall isn't referring to the present Old State House, but to the previous Town House on the same site, which burned in 1711.

The Bostonian Society's newspaper scrapbooks, assembled by the Society's librarian about a century ago, contain some informative articles on old milestones. I looked at them years ago but unfortunately didn't make photocopies at the time. You should investigate them, Daud.

Daud said...

Cool, thanks for the information.

Mark B. said...

Jamaica Plain stone #4 is in a store front wall along the sidewalk near Hyde square, and #6 is in the wall along the Arnold Arboretum directly across from Allandale street and the Faulkner hospital.