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Centuries-old milestones from Boston’s history still stand

Posted by  May 1, 2014 12:01 PM

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A map drawn in 1936 by the National Park Service shows the locations of milestones erected between 1729 and 1823 in and around Boston.

Facing northwest on the corner of Roxbury and Centre Streets in Roxbury, a peculiar stone reading “The Parting Stone 1744 P DUDLE” on its front side sticks out of a cement sidewalk.

Marked with black graffiti, the Parting Stone is different from all the other milestones around Boston because it marks an important crossroad: During Colonial times, the only way to travel into Boston was through Dudley Square.

The two routes the Parting Stone indicates go separate ways — down the hill leads to Cambridge and up the hill leads to Providence, RI.

“I think today it is sort of a neat aspect of the city that you still see there. It reminds you of old times gone by,” said Charles Bahne, a freelance author and historian.

Milestones were made to help stagecoach travelers and mail deliveries in the early days to determine their location and to adjust the rate of their speed they needed to stick to their schedule.

Paul Dudley, Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Boston, erected a series of granite milestones showing the distance from the Old Town House, known today as the Old State House, starting in 1729.

Dudley followed two major westerly routes. One follows Centre Street from Dudley Square in Roxbury down through Jamaica Plain and out to Dedham. The other swings through Brookline, Brighton and out to Cambridge.

A modern day re-enactment of the ride of William Dawes, a fellow rider with Paul Revere, follows the Cambridge route every Patriots Day on horseback starting at the Parting Stone.

Milestones can be found in Dorchester out to Quincy and along major routes between Boston and New York City.

“I’m less interested in the exact mileage than the fact that they are still there and they still indicate the growth of the city and its land transportation,” said Richard Heath, a volunteer archivist at the Jamaica Plain Historical Society. “It’s just something that is part of history now.”

On Harvard Avenue in Allston, a 285-year-old milestone was severed in half in May of 2012. The stone was glued back together and for weeks was surrounded by a fence. The milestone gets a lot of scratches because it is located right next to a parking meter.

Bahne inspected the milestones on this route as he watched the odometer in his car and determined that all of the milestones are at the proper distance. Bahne also said that a few of the stones were lost and re-found, including the stone in Allston and one in Brookline that was found about a hundred years ago.

One of the Brookline milestones was stolen in 1973 from its original location, which is across the street from its current location in front of the United Parish Brookline, once known as the Harvard Congregational Church, at the corner of Harvard and Marion streets near Coolidge Corner.

“It’s a little hard to know how accurate all the stories are, but one thing that I read is that stone at one point was incorporated into a house in Coolidge Corner,” said Ken Liss, president of the Brookline Historical Society. “It was 1825 and the stone was actually used as a door-step and was placed down, and when repairs were done to the house it was found and it was put back in its original location.”

No two stones are alike. Each stone was hand-picked and chiseled. John Goff, a historian and architect, said that carving stones is a huge ordeal and that one wrong move can cause the entire stone to crack.

“That’s probably why you get all of these funky descriptions,” Goff said.

The stone carvers had to figure out where to place the numbers and symbols that indicated B is for Boston, the amount of miles and the year it was made. Many of the milestones also had initials placed by the stone carver or the person who paid for it.

“They just serve today as a reminder of an olden time,” said Liss. “It is nice to have them there as markers, not necessarily so much of distance, but as markers of time.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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