Rare stone highway markers can still be found in the area

Posted: November 12, 2013

The Winchester Star

Few and far between, only a handful of the old stone highway markers, which once guided travelers across Virginia roads, remain. Frederick County has two left, along Northwestern Pike, which was upgraded in the 1840s by engineering legend Claudius Crozet. Maury Sutphin of the Virginia Department of Transportation examines one showing it is 33 miles to Romney, W.Va.
The concrete post at right is an example of the right-of-way markers installed when the state took over construction and maintenance of local primary and secondary roads in the 1930s. Similar concrete posts, triangular in shape, were used to show the edges of construction projects. Many of these markers still exist in the local area.
Faint but legible, this stone road marker, which may date to the 1840s, told travelers on Northwestern Pike how far they were from Romney, W.Va. Cut into the limestone rock are the letters “To R,” on one line and “36M” below.

GORE — Hard, white and silent, they were still the geo-positioning systems of their day.

Road markers have been part of Virginia’s highway system since the 18th century, according to Ann B. Miller, senior research scientist and historian for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

And several types of these markers are still standing in the northern Shenandoah Valley.

As early as 1738, Virginia’s Colonial government demanded that roads be marked — with most being made of wood.

“Anything wood that was put in the ground is not around now,” Miller said.

But Clarke County has an example of what such a wooden post could have looked like.

In the village of White Post stands a replica wooden pillar that points the way to Berry’s Ferry and Greenway Court — places that many people wouldn’t recognize now.

The post, which legend has it was put up by George Washington in his role as surveyor for Thomas, Lord Fairfax, hints at two sites that were very important in the mid-18th century.

Berry’s Ferry carried settlers across the Shenandoah River into the “western frontier” of the Valley; Greenway Court was the site of the land office of Fairfax, who owned thousands of acres that those settlers wanted to buy.

The original post is long gone, but it has been replaced through the years in roughly the same manner as the original.

Miller said most of the wooden signs, by law, were placed at crossroads, like the one in White Post. They were generally fairly high, up to 10 feet tall, so they could be easily read by people on horseback.

As the frontier moved west, and settlers went with it, roads were needed and everyone wanted to know how far it was to get where they were going.

Road markers began to be installed that gave that information.

Along Northwestern Pike in Frederick County there are two examples of these roadside markers, which by the early 1800s were generally made of limestone because it was easy to carve, Miller said.

The stones stand about 18 inches tall and 13 inches wide and are carved in a simple manner.

“They look like itsy bitsy gravestones,” Miller said, but don’t be deceived. There can be as much as three feet of stone underneath them.

It was helpful in the 1800s for travelers to know where they were going.

One stone on Northwestern Pike gave travelers the mileage from that point to Romney, then part of Virginia. The carving reads “To R” and the number 36. A few miles down the road is another stone that says “To R” and 33.

What the stones don’t show is the name of the man who put them there.

Claudius Crozet had a long and interesting history before he reached the fledgling United States, Miller said.

He had trained in the French army to be what now would be called a civil engineer.

Crozet also followed the French emperor Napoleon to Russia and was captured when the French were thrown back from St. Petersburg in the early 1800s. After his capture, he spent time as a tutor to the royal family’s children.

Released, he went west and crossed the ocean to America.

In the 1850s, Crozet was the head engineer for Virginia’s Board of Public Works.

His most well-known engineering feat was a tunnel through the Blue Ridge Mountains, near the town that now bears his name, north of Charlottesville, in Nelson County.

Built in the years 1850 to 1858, Crozet started two teams, one on the west side of the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap and one on the east.

Using only hand drills and black powder, they excavated a tunnel nearly a mile long.

When the men broke through to meet each other under the mountain, “They came out less than an inch off true,” Miller said.

Crozet’s tunnel was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and is now being renovated and repaired as a hiking and biking trail by the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation in Lovingston.

That same engineering genius laid out Frederick’s Northwestern Pike, now U.S. 50, and set up the marking stones along its path.

These stones are fairly unique too, Miller said, and there are not too many in the commonwealth that date to the mid-19th century.

Miller considers Frederick County “fairly well endowed” because it has two.

There are other stones along local highways that tell stories and mark boundaries.

In the early 20th century, Miller said, Virginia’s Highway Department used concrete shafts to mark the edge of the state’s right of way.

In the 1930s, Virginia, under Gov. Harry F. Byrd, took over ownership and maintenance of the state’s primary and secondary roads from the various counties.

Square concrete pillars were used to show where the road right of way and the state’s land ownership ended.

These shafts usually have the initials VDOT stamped on them, Miller said, or bear a small metal disc.

There were other concrete shafts, these triangular in shape, which marked the limits of certain road construction projects, she added.

The widening of roads through the last century has destroyed many of these concrete markers, Miller said, and many of the old marking stones from the Colonial period have been vandalized, broken or stolen.

Those that still stand often go unnoticed.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com