Milestone Road: Six and a Half Miles, Hundreds of Years of History

Road roller at work on Milestone Road, Siasconset, Nantucket. 1899. Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

 

At just about 6.5 miles long, Milestone Road connects Nantucket’s two historic cores: the bustling harbor front of downtown and the quiet village of ’Sconset. Yet Milestone Road is not simply a way from here to there, but an important historic corridor with unparalleled views of Nantucket’s rural landscape, critical to the island’s status as a National Historic Landmark.

The NHL entry illuminates further: “Land conservation efforts have preserved more than 40% of the island as open land, large portions of which are managed as cranberry bogs and open land subject to annual controlled burns; this conservation land preserves the windswept maritime setting that has characterized all periods of Nantucket’s historic past.”

Horse drawn carriage on Nantucket roadway, most likely Milestone Road. ca. 1890. Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

By the late 1600s, Nantucketers started establishing cart paths to Siasconset. The paths were free flowing and often diverted obstacles such as ruts, but generally followed the now established road. Early 19th century deeds provide evidence that the road was well established just west of the village from Cain’s Hill (public golf course) east to Sconset.

In 1824, the milestone markers were placed to time horse races from and to ‘Sconset and town. On June 1, 1833 The Inquirer & Mirror reported that many hundreds of cart loads of clay have been intermixed with the sand and the “prospect is very favorable that an excellent road will be established from town out to the first milestone marker.”

In 1855, Nantucketers wanted a clearly designated road to the east end of the island. A road was surveyed and improved. In 1856, Mr. Joseph Vincent planted a row of pine seed on each side of the ’Sconset road, “from the corner just below the Asylum to Philip’s Run.”

By the 1880s, the road to ’Sconset was commonly referred to as the Milestone Road. Throughout the 1880s the road required repairs as the ruts became quite deep. Schemes for an electric railway along the Milestone Road were proposed in the late 1880s.


Milestone road construction underway with a man measuring the depth of an old rutted road beside it. 1894. Courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

By 1893 the condition of the road was so poor that the town petitioned for Milestone Road to become a state road. The road was again surveyed. Over the course of several years in the late 1890s the Milestone Road was paved with crushed stones. The State Road to ’Sconset was completed in 1910.

By 1896, a bike path had been constructed from town to ’Sconset and was repaired in 1900 after heavy use. It was paved in 1958.

According to Dr. Frances Karttunen, in “A History of Roads and Ways in Nantucket County,” around 1900, a handful of motor vehicles were brought to Nantucket by summer residents. Nantucket voters successfully requested a special act of the Massachusetts legislature to make it illegal to operate an automobile on the island. This ban passed in 1908 and was held until the spring of 1918. Within ten days of the repeal, there were 24 cars and a car dealership on island.

In 1977, Milestone Road was beautified by the planting of 21,000 daffodil bulbs alongside the road by the Nantucket Garden Club. More than forty years later, the daffodils still delight each spring.

Milestone Road has long captivated those journeying to ’Sconset, as this 1896 poem A Picture by Anna C. Starbuck printed in The Inquirer & Mirror details:

I am noting the stretch of the “commons,”

            The prairie-like roll of the land;

            I care not to number the mile-stones

            That flaunt me their faces, so bland;

            Each wheel turns a fresh internode,

            For I love every inch of the distance

            Each sod and each rut of the road.