Two enterprising boy scouts—Aidan Vandenburgh and Sam Basel—have entered the annals of Southold Town history by volunteering to restore the old mile markers along the Main Road as their Eagle Scout service project. This year is also the town’s 375th Anniversary, giving the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, which published a booklet on the stones back in 1991, reason to sponsor the town-wide project. Work will be completed soon. Anyone traveling the Main Road between Laurel and Orient Point should keep an eye out for the markers which, true to their name, are spaced about every mile along the south side of the road.
Coincidentally, the last in the series (Mile Marker #30) is located at Orient Point in a grassy spot between the end of Route 25 and Lane One of the Cross Sound Ferry. Once puddled in concrete for support, the marker now stands upright and announces that the distance from there to “Suffolk CH” [Court House]—now Riverhead—is “30 M” [Miles]. One can only imagine that traveling this distance was a greater feat many years ago, and that counting off the miles encouraged those traveling by stagecoach, horseback or by foot by measuring their progress. These relics of a bygone era are timeless reminders of a landscape that has changed in many ways, but whose rural beauty is still preserved and enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
But what is the history behind the 24 stone mile markers that the Boy Scouts are restoring? Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin, serving as postmaster general to the Northern Colonies, supervised their installation in 1755 as part of his responsibility to manage the vast network of post roads throughout the region. It was supposed that the ever-inventive Franklin, who oversaw a department that charged for its services by the distance the mail traveled, was motivated to mark the miles that determined the postal rates. But recent scholarship has shown that Southold Town’s mile markers were actually set in 1829 in response to a New York State law. It seems that Southold Town complied, while many others did not.
The true origin of the stones makes sense, especially since the kind of rock from which they were carved—hornblende granite—wasn’t quarried until the early 1800s. But the Franklin legend lives on, as well it should, reminding us of this Founding Father’s many careers and contributions to the nation. And Vandenburgh and Basel, working under the direction of stone conservator Joel C. Snodgrass, have learned to respect both the legend and reality of the mile markers. Each measures about five feet in length and weighs over 450 pounds. Only about two feet of each should appear above the surface; the lower portion, three feet long and more roughly shaped, anchors the stones in place. After nearly two centuries, and despite numerous automobile strikes, the mile markers remain remarkably intact.
Vandenburgh and Basel are spending the fall learning and implementing stone restoration techniques as they fulfill the service project requirement to achieve Eagle Scout rank. Hoisting the heavy granite stones from the ground, resetting them and occasionally relocating them out of harm’s way, and reattaching broken pieces with a special epoxy adhesive will occupy their spare time until the project’s completion, around Thanksgiving. Signs identifying the legendary connection of the stones to Benjamin Franklin’s legacy will be installed before year’s end, marking Southold Town’s commitment to its history in this 375th anniversary year. And these two boy scouts, in their quest to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout, will have created a legacy of their own.
Zachary N. Studenroth is the Director of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council. If you’d like to join the Council or contribute to its preservation work, call 631-734-7122.