One of two remaining mile markers along Ocean Parkway was plucked from the ground recently after guiding the way for at least 127 years, attracting the attention of local preservationists seeking to safeguard the last gravestone-like signpost.
The stone, which read “5M” – marking the fifth mile from the Prospect Park circle at the southwest corner of the park – stood at the intersection of Ocean Parkway and Neptune Avenue. The last remaining stone sits in the grass on the west side of Ocean Parkway, just south of Avenue P. It reads “3M.”
It’s not confirmed yet who removed the stone or when, but the Neptune Avenue corner where it once stood is sporting a new B1 bus shelter and sign, indicating the Department of Transportation may have done it during the corner’s rehabilitation.
Preservationists are now sounding the call to see the remaining stone protected from future “improvements” along Ocean Parkway.
“Those two stones (now one?) are the survivors of a series that has marked the distance along Ocean Parkway for at least 127 years, if not longer,” said Joseph Ditta, author of Gravesend, Brooklyn and reference librarian at the New-York Historical Society. “They are reminders of the days when all travel was by horse and are two of the few markers still in their original positions.”
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The stones long sat unnoticed by historians, until their rediscovery in 1957 by a member of the New York Historical Society. A 1964 article by Richard J. Koke explored their history and significance, finding that they were in fact half-mile markers, and sat in 11 locations along the boulevard. At the time, only seven survived. He wrote:
Ocean Parkway had been planned in the 1860s to link Prospect Park and Coney Island, and in 1873-1876 the road was constructed by the Brooklyn Park Commission. Starting at the circle at the southwest corner of the park, it pursued its course westward for a few blocks and then turned southward in a straight course to the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island, five and one-half miles away, where it intersected a seaside promenade called Ocean Concourse (now part of Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk). The parkway’s broad central avenue was 70 feet wide and was bordered by side roads and park areas which made the total width 210 feet. Brooklynites considered it the finest drive in America. Thronged in the summer with carriages, trotters, and wheelmen, the road was one of the great factors in the development of Coney Island as a popular seaside resort.
Beginning at the Prospect Park circle, a stone was erected every half mile to where the parkway joined Ocean Concourse. Of the eleven original stones, those that remain are the 1st Half-Milestone near Cortelyou Road, the 1 1/2 at Parkville Avenue, the 2d near Avenue J, the 2 1/2 near Avenue M, the 3d near Avenue P, the 3 1/2 near Avenue S, and the 5th near Neptune Avenue. The exact locations are indicated with greater precision in the checklist which follows the body of the article. [NOTE: The four stones which are no longer standing are the 1/2, 4th, 4 1/2, and 5 1/2 Half-Milestones. The 1/2 Half-Milestone must have stood in the vicinity of Church Avenue, the 4th near Gravesend Neck Road, the 4 /12 near Brighton Court, and the 5 1/2 at the Ocean Concourse, now Surf Avenue.]
Despite all of his research, Koke still couldn’t find source materials revealing the erection dates of the stones. Based on vague references to “improvements” and “repairs” by the Brooklyn Park Commission, which managed the parkway, he estimated that they dated back to approximately 1876.
Ditta thinks he got the year right, noting that the earliest reference found since Koke’s work was a listing for Gravesend resident Thomas Ferguson in an 1883 directory. The listing noted Ferguson lived on the “Boulevard” at the “2 1/2 mile stone.”
When renowned city planners Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux built Ocean Parkway between 1874 and 1876, they envisioned a six-mile long extension of their earlier creation, Prospect Park, which some say is even better than their masterpiece, Central Park. When first laid out, Ocean Parkway was a direct route for pedestrians and mounted traffic, as well as buggies and wagons, to get to the Coney Island shore from Prospect Park. Even the bicycle wasn’t yet invented when the parkway first appeared.
Milestones were a common method of marking private routes beginning in the colonial era and lasting until the start of the 20th Century. Relatively few NYC thoroughfares boasted them, although the old Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) in upper Manhattan had them, as well as Jackson Avenue (now Northern Boulevard) in Queens.
Walsh added that several roads in the city had milemarkers similar to this one, including Kings Highway, Boston Post Road and Northern Boulevard. And modernity hasn’t been too accommodating with other mineral memorabilia: two millstones in Long Island City, which remain the oldest man-made objects in Queens, are threatened as Queens Plaza gets renovated.
Walsh and Ditta are both looking into getting area historical societies and even the Brooklyn Museum involved in their protection.
But they have to move quickly, since the “3M” stone near Avenue P stands in the way of the Ocean Parkway bike path renovation. The repairs have seen the DOT moving south, block by block, tearing up the bike and pedestrian paths from curb to curb. They’re currently only three or four blocks away from Avenue P. The last remaining stone may just be a few months away from becoming history.
Walsh said the problem is one of institutional neglect. He proposes making a list of all remaining historic milestones in the city and communicating their importance to city agencies like the DOT.
“Their preservation has been a catch as catch can affair,” Walsh said. “The DOT junks anything nonstandard they come across. Locusts strip cornfields slower than the DOT strips historic artifacts.”
(Thanks to Walsh and Ditta, who both provided background material for this article. Special thanks to Queens Crap, who tipped us off to the stone’s removal.)