Imagine this: It’s 1815, and you’re cruising along in your Conestoga wagon across the Pennsylvania wilds to Pittsburgh. Maybe you’re headed from Greensburg to find work or from farther east because it’s too crowded there.
“Cruising along,” by the way, is putting it nicely. It’s more like bumping along over a muddy path while your horse neighs and all of your worldly possessions toss and turn.
The sight of a mile stone — a piece of sandstone indicating how many miles to go until Pittsburgh — is a vision on par with a mirage.
These simple mile markers, about two feet tall and engraved with a number indicating how far to the next town, dotted Pennsylvania’s fledgling highway system in the early 1800s. Thirty identically shaped mile stones stood along the Greensburg-Pittsburgh Turnpike, each carefully placed to face North so they’d light up in the sun. They were spaced exactly one mile apart, spanning the 30-some miles between Greensburg and Pittsburgh.
Only one of the 30 still exists, local historians say.
Today, it sits in front of the Wilkinsburg Borough Building, preserved in a granite-and-plexiglass case. Its original “7 mi” engraving has washed away, but a placard explains its history along what was once “The Great Road” (now known as Penn Avenue), where it welcomed weary travelers to the newly settled town of Wilkinsburg.
“At that time, that was mostly wilderness, so a stone like that was very important to let people know they’d made progress on their trek to Pittsburgh,” said Anne Elise Morris, president of the Wilkinsburg Historical Society. “Those stones look so insignificant now, but at that time when you’re walking through this path with your Conestoga wagon and your stagecoach and your herds of sheep and you saw that stone, it was like ‘Yes!’”
The idea for mile stones came from none other than Benjamin Franklin. He introduced the idea of erecting mile markers and even personally measured the distances of some roads in Philadelphia during his time as postmaster general, because the cost of postage depended on how far the letter had to travel, per the Wilkinsburg Historical Society.
So if mile stones were so important, what happened to the others?
Some were located on private property, and as roads widened over time, they simply vanished. People may have taken them as souvenirs, said Brian Butko, director of publications at Heinz History Center. Or perhaps, because sandstone wears away over time, people didn’t know they were special rocks.
Though they weren’t part of the Greensburg-Pittsburgh Turnpike, some mile stones still exist in eastern Pennsylvania.
Wilkinsburg’s mile stone was only saved by chance in 1914 from a pile of dirt intended for the landfill when the street commissioner noticed it.
“It was just sort of miraculous that ours was saved by the street commissioner,” Morris said. “He said, ‘Wait a second, that’s important.’”
The commissioner stored it in his basement for years until the historical society decided to put it on public display in 1942, not long after the municipal building opened. The society refurbished the artifact in 2014.
It’s sat on display there ever since, serving as a reminder of the massive changes in the past 200 years: From tombstone-shaped directional rocks to GPS in the palm of our hands; from dirt paths to paved (albeit pothole-laden) streets.
The original Greensburg-Pittsburgh Turnpike, part of a 10-leg system of turnpikes across the state that would become the Lincoln Highway, was far from today’s idea of the modern-day fast-moving Pennsylvania Turnpike.
But even back then, it was a toll road. In fact, that’s where the name “Turnpike” comes from. At the tollbooth, the toll-taker would “turn” a long stick called a “pike” when the toll was paid, said Butko, who has written extensively about the Lincoln Highway.
People hated paying tolls then, too — so much that they’d cross to the next block to avoid the tollbooth or even carve a parallel road called a “shunpike,” Butko said. That is, until the toll-enforcers moved the booth to catch “shunpikers.”
The Greensburg-Pittsburgh Turnpike became a well-traveled roadway with plenty of traffic (nothing has changed in Pittsburgh since 1815, it seems). Some days, 90 wagons passed through the toll gates near Pittsburgh, according to research from the Wilkinsburg Historical Society. It cost $29.30 to travel between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with a narrow-wheeled wagon and six horses, per the historical society.
Westward settlers headed to explore the new frontier, while eastbound voyagers were often farmers traveling with their animals — “600 to 700 sheep in a herd all heading down Penn Avenue,” Morris said.
If you think Pittsburgh’s roads are too bumpy today, remember this piece of trivia Butko shared about the origin of the phrase “I’ll be there with bells on,” which harkens back to a time of carriages and wagons.
“If you got stuck in a ditch, you’d ring your bell, and then you’d have to give your bells to the people who rescued you,” he said, as a reward. “That’s why you want to be there with bells on.”
Having the Turnpike pass through town was a big deal back then because it ensured booming business during an era of westward expansion. It was a time when inns and taverns — women-run, by the way — took prominence.
A famous inn, the Seven Mile House built in 1840, stood across from the mile marker from which it drew its name. An 1850s-era travel guide lists Wilkinsburg as the stagecoach stop between Adamsburg and Pittsburgh, a place for rest and refreshment, according to the historical society’s archives.
“It was a great thing for building Wilkinsburg up,” Morris said.