Highway History, Carved in Stone by Charles Adams
What a pleasant surprise, walking out of the building that houses Pennsylvania’s Americana Region’s visitors center and offices and discovering a relic of transportation days gone by right out front! Propped proudly in the apron between the curb and sidewalk of the recently rebuilt and widened PA Route 61 is a gleaming stone mile marker that proclaims “5 to R,” and nothing more. That would have been enough information for 19th-century travelers to know that Reading was five miles to the south. The stone is a relic from the era when Pennsylvania Route 61 (known locally as Centre Avenue or the Pottsville Pike) was the Centre Turnpike. That toll road stretched roughly 75 miles from Reading to Sunbury. According to noted historian Morton L. Montgomery in his presentation, “Ancient Milestones of Berks County Highways,” read before the members of the Historical Society of Berks County on September 13, 1910, the roadway was surveyed in 1745 by Samuel Lightfoot and was called the “King’s Highway.” The Centre Turnpike was chartered as a private corporation on March 25, 1805, when, as the historian noted, “Rates of toll were fixed; milestones were ordered to be put up; and toll-houses every five miles.”
Marking the Way, One Mile at a Time “The milestones,” Montgomery said, were made of white marble slabs, three feet long, one foot wide, and three inches thick, with the top rounded in a semi-circle; set one foot in the ground, on the east side of the highway, outside of the fence. White marble was selected to make the stones easily seen in passing. They were erected by the company upon completion of the turnpike.” “This turnpike,” Montgomery continued, “was completed about 1810, and it was carried on by the Centre Turnpike Company until 1884, when it was abandoned, having been in a bad state of repair for a number of years previously.” In ensuing decades, most of the route was converted into a federal, and then a state highway, while the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased some lengths of it for a right-of-way. Over the years, the old road was paved, repaved, widened and rerouted. Much of the course of the pike remains in some form, but several abandoned portions are nothing more than overgrown lanes barely recognizable as a once-busy highway. What locals call the “Pottsville Pike” was for many years a federal highway, US 122. In 1963, it was turned over to the state and designated as PA 61. A local wit who resided along the highway liked to joke that even though 122 became 61, it would always be 122–“61 northbound, and 61 southbound.”
Doing as the Romans Did Milestones, or variations thereof, date back to the very origins of long-distance roadways. Primitive stone posts can be found along the Via Appia, or Appian Way, the Roman road that is generally regarded to be the world’s first (312 B.C.) paved road. According to The Milestone Society (yes, there is such an organization–lots of interesting information at milestonesociety.co.uk) in Great Britain, as the Romans built roads in the UK, they marked “every thousandth double-step” of a soldier with a stone post. In Latin, “thousand” is “mille,” and hence the word “milestone.” While distance reference markers of modern roads are no longer etched in stone, they are imprinted on steel signs.
“5 to R” Has Company It is interesting to note that two other weathered markers can be found between the “5 to R” milestone, and downtown Reading. One is in front of the Berks History Center at 940 Centre Avenue, where a brown stone proclaims “To Rdg 3 Mls.” That, of course, is a moot and misleading milestone in that it is actually within the city limits of “Rdg,” and only 1.1 “Mls” to Penn Street, from which the mileage on the markers was calculated (although Montgomery claimed the distance was determined two blocks farther north, from Walnut Street in Reading). It stands as an outdoor exhibit for the History Center. In fact, an even more historically important but navigationally irrelevant marker stands nearby. Its somewhat cryptic inscription appears in an accompanying picture. The other stone is embedded within the stones of the western wall of the Charles Evans Cemetery. The stone there is “stone one” of the old turnpike. Morton L. Montgomery discovered that it was first placed along the road on what was known as Cemetery Hill. “And when the enclosing wall of the cemetery was built,” he claimed, “this stone was set in the wall a short distance south of the entrance.”
5 to R: Really? Now, let’s fact check the stone that stands in front of the visitors bureau office building. Is it indeed “5 to R?” Well, not quite–but close enough for PennDOT work. According to my unofficial odometer, it is 4.9 miles from that marker to Penn Street in Reading. Even closer, if Morton L. Montgomery was right and the distance was determined from Walnut Street. Interestingly, the mileage indicator actually faces north, and as the stone is on the east side of the highway and along the northbound lanes, traffic southbound, and inbound to “R” would not notice it. But, credit the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for at least carefully removing, saving, restoring, and replacing the chunk of history.