Milestones, not signs, marked the way

  Marker #5 located by the monument at Centre and South Streets in Jamaica Plain. Photograph by Frank O. Branzetti in 1940. Library of Congress.

Marker #5 located by the monument at Centre and South Streets in Jamaica Plain. Photograph by Frank O. Branzetti in 1940. Library of Congress.

En route to a recent meeting this chronicler was on the southern end of Blue Hill Avenue. On the outbound side, a rectangular granite marker almost four feet high, eight inches thick and nearly two feet wide was revealed. It had to be an early milestone in the tradition of the Judge Paul Dudley milestones (seen in finest form at the Civil War Monument here in JP).

In the early 1950's, two investigators, C. Howard and H. Hannaway, checked out the old milestones leading form Boston and produced two maps with pictures of the stones they found and brief descriptions of each. Their 1950 map featured several chains of milestones (as these inscribed stones are) south out of Boston, while their 1952 map featured two western chains that broke off from the southerly ones by the Dudley Street Station.

The two westerly chains, one following Centre Street out to Dedham and the other swinging through Brookline and Brighton to Cambridge, were the work in 1730 of Judge Paul Dudley, whose descendents still live in the area. The hard-to-follow Cambridge route is ridden by a modern William Dawes on horseback every Patriots Day. For the first milestones chain to Dedham a Jamaica Plain driver watching his odometer (preferably on Sunday) starts at Eliot Square in Roxbury and ends at the Faulkner Hospital. He will easily spot stone #3, #5 and #6, and possibly #4.

Marking miles (1,000 paces, named by those master road builders of antiquity, the Romans) is hardly new. Many inscribed Roman milestones have survived with modern terminology: destination, distance, sponsor and date. Boston milestones may be the earliest. Boston judge and diarist Samuel Sewall noted in 1707 that he had set two milestones on the road over the Boston Neck to Roxbury.

The Romans erected their Golden Milestone in the Forum at Rome to mark the point from which all distances in their empire were measured; Sewall made his origin the Old State House. The custom was continued as the chains of milestones increased, but today distances in the Commonwealth are measured from the center of the dome of the (New) State House. Sewall placed his stones along Washington Street, since it was the only land route out of the then peninsular Town of Boston.

The Upper Road from Boston, which breaks with Washington at Warren Street, was marked by Judge Dudley, who erected another of his familiar stones at Blue Hill Avenue and Warren Street (Grove Hall) at the Roxbury/Dorchester boundary to the Neponset River at Lower Mills. Here the Upper Road met Lower Road into Adams Street. The Blake House at Everett Square preserves stones #4 and #6 with #7 by Dorchester Park.

The road beyond the river through Milton Village and up the hill continues the chain of stones; past the panoramic Hutchinson's Field, the home of the next to last colonial governor (1769-74), Governor Belcher (1730-41), and on out to Braintree. This was the coast or Bay Road to Plymouth and the Cape, which had a rebirth when it was marked with granite rectangular markers with the Old Colony seal during the Pilgrim Tercentenary in 1920. These are seen from Dorchester Lower Mills to Provincetown.

Sewall's tradition was carried on in 1823 by J. McLean (1761-1823). The Boston merchant who gave Massachusetts General Hospital the psychiatric hospital that was named after him and still continues.

McLean simply continued with six stones from the 1735 Paul Dudley stone at Grove Hall. The road today continues its service as Rt. 138 to the Blue Hills and beyond. Boston's other milestones have a tale to tell of survival despite change all around them. They were the markers until the task of signing roads between municipalities was taken up by the state.

By Walter H. Marx

Sources: "Connecticut's Milestones," Boston Herald, August 2, 1987; "Old Milestones from Boston," Mass. Historical Society, 1909; "Milestones In and Near Boston," Brookline Historical Society, 1909.

Reprinted with permission from the November 20, 1992 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright, Gazette Publications, Inc.