Milestones of Dutchess County
The following article was adapted from a transcript of the lecture “Milestones of Dutchess County,” presented by Mr. James Spratt in 1995.* Mr. Spratt was a civil engineer with the New York State Department of Transportation for nineteen years, the Dutchess County Commissioner of Public Works for nineteen years, and a Past President of the New York State County Highway Superintendents Association (1986). He and his wife, Marguerite, were instrumental in preserving those milestone markers remaining in Dutchess County in the 1970s. After James’ death, Marguerite Spratt generously allowed the Marist College Archives and Special Collections to digitize much of their research material and make it available online at: http://library.marist.edu/archives/online_exhibits.html.
I find milestones a roadside treasure, both historical and functional.
Today, when we go on a trip, we have readily available roadmaps, and shortly we will have video readouts in our car to show where we are and how we get to our destinations. Supporting all of this is our very elaborate and costly highway signage system. Milestones were the beginning of this system, stone markers that now stand silently along our highways. Along New York State Route 9 and the various Old Post Roads throughout Dutchess County, they resemble gravestones, made from sandstone quarried as far west as Indiana that was chosen for its smoothness and softness. The carving or tooling of text on the stone face required the use of a soft stone. Today, erosion has left many milestones faceless.
My interest in milestones began with my wife’s question about the markers. She noticed a broken milestone along the road and inquired as to who restores them. It was just prior to our country’s bicentennial celebration, and I am a highway engineer, so a project was suggested—to find as many milestones as possible between Poughkeepsie and Columbia County to the north. In Dutchess County, we are blessed with a concentration of milestones still in existence. This was not by chance: when governor, Franklin Roosevelt had a law passed that gave responsibility for the maintenance and preservation of these milestones to the State Highway Department, now called the Department of Transportation.
Roosevelt’s interest in preserving the milestones extended into his presidency, when he had the Dutchess County Historical Society provide a protective stone masonry enclosure for each of the original sandstone markers. These efforts are obvious today. The milestones are of red sandstone and stand about three feet high by eighteen inches wide. The distance along the Old Post Road or Route 9 is oriented to New York City, giving the number of miles you are from City Hall. Milestone number one is on exhibit in the Museum of the City of New York.
Benjamin Franklin was the originator of the milestone system. When he was serving as Postmaster General and needed a basis for revenue to pay for the Post Office Department, he devised a rate system based on miles traveled and the number of sheets of paper a letter contained. Typical rates were six cents per sheet for less than thirty miles and twenty-five cents per sheet for over 400 miles. It is reputed that Franklin placed some milestones himself. These were said to be on the Boston Post Road and in the Philadelphia area. In order to lay out these markers, a clacker system was used. A dowel was placed inside a wagon wheel of known circumference or tread length. Each time it made one revolution, it hit a clacker, making a sound that could be counted. If the wheel circumference was, say, thirteen feet, it would take 390 revolutions—or clacks—to measure a mile. We have no evidence that Franklin himself did the actual placement, but this is how it was accomplished. Having been established as postal route guides, these markers soon became transportation guides as well. Today, the average driver going fifty miles an hour might not notice them, but colonial travelers riding in uncomfortable stages over bumpy roads looked anxiously for each milestone to gauge the time before reaching the next coach stop. As our road system developed, the milestone has been replaced by signs and by our kids using McDonald’s as a measuring guide.
The establishment of postal roads brought about the term “Post Road” in our transportation system. In 1703, then-Governor Viscount Cornbury established five “Great Roads” whose maintenance would be the responsibility of the colony. These routes, which included the Albany Post Road and Boston Post Road, radiated from New York City, with its hub on Lower Broadway at Wall Street. Funding to construct the new roads was to come from a lottery. When this was not well-received, private investors were asked to provide capital, bringing about the introduction of turnpikes in our transportation system. Originally, a turnpike was a toll road with markers placed at each mile and toll gates every ten miles; users paid a maximum of twenty-five cents, the highest fee charged to those riding in a fancy conveyance, such as a coach. In 1772, the Provincial Assembly established a weekly mail route between New York and Albany. It was to go up one side of the river and down the other. Hence, in the town of New Paltz, just west of the village, there is a road called Albany Post Road.
In Dutchess County, the milestones’ preservation was undertaken jointly through the efforts of the Dutchess County Historical Society, the State Highway Department, and President Roosevelt. Of the 159 milestones placed between New York and Albany, forty were in Dutchess County. Of those, we have recorded twenty-eight as still existing.
* The recorded lecture was originally transcribed by Erin Kelly, Marist ’09.