Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

From Airville to Blooming Valley, from Camptown to Dornsife, and all the way to Wysox, York Haven and Zion View, Pennsylvania literally claims unusual – as well as unique – place names from A to Z. Most of the Commonwealth’s cities, towns and villages were once marked with cast iron name signs, painted in the rich blue and gold colors associated with Pennsylvania. Manufactured in an elongated horizontal keystone shape – hence the name keystone marker – they make a monumental statement about the communities they grace, defining and reflecting a character purely local but also perfectly Pennsylvanian. They impart a sense of place and serve as silent sentinels at gateways, offering welcome to residents and travelers alike.

Far too many of these priceless threads in the fabric of state, regional and local history have been lost over time, most commonly to growth, development and road expansion, replaced by simple aluminum markers noting only the name of the communities. Although years of neglect caused the demise of many originals, a surprising number do survive. It will require the continuing interest and action of local governments, organizations and individuals if these are not to literally fall by the side of the road and disappear forever.

 

History of Keystone Markers

The installation of keystone markers was a program of the former Pennsylvania Department of Highways, created by an act signed in 1903 by Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker and reorganized in 1970 as the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot). Nearly all of Pennsylvania’s highway signs in the 1920s used the keystone shape and were also manufactured of cast iron. The use of similar signs to mark the towns and villages of the Commonwealth, as well as crossings of major streams and rivers, was an outgrowth of the department’s signage program, and an aspect of the Good Roads movement then sweeping the nation.

Reports issued by the Department of Highways reveal much about the marker program. According to the department’s biennial report for 1926-1928, “The Department also makes a practice of marking the limits of boroughs with cast iron signs on which are a few facts as to the date the community was founded and the derivation of its name.” A 1927 department publication, Pennsylvania Highways – Facts Motorists Should Know, also mentions these markers. “The state has been noted for its historical signs at all points of interest, signs at the entrances to boroughs and cities. …” The first use of the word keystone in connection with the markers appears in this report. “The wording is brief and to the point, and the uniform keystone design makes it easy to find the signs.”

The report for 1928-1930 notes that, “During the biennium 1,359 information signs were placed, including historical, stream, summit, state institution, speed limit and parking restriction signs.” It also includes a photograph of the bridge spanning the Allegheny River at Tidioute, Warren County. Prominent in the foreground of the photograph is the town marker, which appears to have been in place for some time.

The 1930-1932 report touted the department’s success. “There were 640 direction, danger, warning and caution signs purchased for the old System State highways and 21 such signs purchased for city streets, including principally, signs for direction, dangerous hills, school zones, historical and stream markings.” The term historical refers to the cast iron keystone town signs. Highway Department reports after 1932 make no mention of historical signs or stream signs for ten years, until the report for 1940-1942. “Investigations were made during the biennium in connection with the installation of new traffic route markers, establishment of speed limit zones and no parking zones, placing of directional, historical, and through highway signs. …” It seems likely the department was installing such signs at the time this report was compiled.

The newest of these original signs is now some 70 years old, and many individuals have taken an interest in them over the intervening years, if only to document their existence. Amateur photographer Fred M. Yenerall (1907-1983) of Greensburg, Westmoreland County, toured the state in the 1970s,taking photographs not only of many of these markers, but also of iron furnaces, gristmills, covered bridges, barns, roadside novelties and interesting features dotting Pennsylvania’s landscape.

N. Clair Clawser, a retired Lebanon County printer, began collecting information about these markers nearly 50 years ago. His book entitled A Guide of Pennsylvania Towns was first published in 1970. He has expanded and revised the work over the years and released the seventh edition in 2012.

 

Keystone Marker Trust

Founded in 2008 by several individuals from throughout the Commonwealth who share an interest in Pennsylvania history in general, and these markers in particular, the Keystone Marker Trust (KMT) is a volunteer, non-profit organization that has adopted three important goals: the documentation of as many extant, or once-extant markers, as possible; encouraging and assisting PennDot and local governments, organizations and individuals to take the initiative to adopt individual markers; and assisting communities to obtain and erect replicas of missing originals. Each members of the trust has personally repaired and repainted numerous markers, largely at their own expense, both in their own communities and across the state where willing volunteers could not be recruited. Communities where apparently no one has the time or talent to restore these markers are turning to the trust’s volunteers to undertake the work.

KMT’s website includes a database of more than 700 markers, most with photographs, in addition to text, location and present status. The listing identifies markers in 60 of the Commonwealth’s 67 counties, although members believe others still stand that have not yet been located. Previously unrecorded markers are continually being added to the database. The mid-state counties of Blair, Huntingdon, Mifflin, and Centre constitute quite a blank-spot in KMT’s records. Unfortunately, knowledge of present status is often unknown, hampered by old or undated photographs. The database is continually updated by individual trust members who research and travel, as well as by a growing number of spotters. It is the most complete index of keystone markers in existence.

 

About Town Name Markers

Town name markers were placed at each end of a municipality if it was traversed by what was then considered a “state road.” The typical small community possessed two. Towns at the intersection of more than one state-numbered route, or federally – numbered route – U.S. Route 30 for example would have warranted four signs. There are scattered examples of communities in which several routes converge; York, for example, once had five signs. It’s rare when more than two markers survive in a community today; many are fortunate to even have one.

PennDOT does coordinate a program of town name signs, but these are simple aluminum blanks identifying nothing more than the names of towns or townships. The brightly painted, cast-iron markers of long ago tell quite a bit more about the towns a traveler is entering. In addition to town names, keystone markers impart a snippet of explanation as to the derivation of the town’s name. “Named for Samuel Harley Early Quaker Settler,” touts the marker at Harleysville, Montgomery County. The date the town was founded is almost always clearly above at the bottom edge. Typically, the name of another town, followed by a number, appears at the top of the marker.

Often a marker will reveal a community’s former name. “Originally Starrytown, Renamed for John Heidler,” reads the marker at Heidlersburg, an unincorporated community in Adams County. Another, at Florence, Washington County, informs motorists the town was “Originally Briceland’s Cross Roads,” but reveals nothing at all about Florence. Many town names hint at the ethnicity of early settlers. Sheffield, Warren County, was named for Sheffield, England. New Florence, Westmoreland County, was named for “Firenze, or ‘Florence’ Italy,” according to its text. Milford, Pike County, was named for “Old Town In Wales Formerly Called Wells Ferry.” Newburg, Cumberland County, was named for Newburg, Germany. And the list goes on and on.

The text of the signs, specifically the local history, was apparently the product of a committee in which Pennsylvania Folklorist Henry W.Shoemaker (1880-1958) was heavily involved. Shoemaker was chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (PHC) from 1923 to 1930 when the marker program was initiated. PHC’s annual report for 1926 states clearly that Shoemaker and fellow Commission member Albert Cook Myers (1874-1960) “were actively engaged for a period of many months in securing historical accuracy for the numerous metal marker signs for the towns and physical features of the Commonwealth erected by the Department of Highways.” Shoemaker wrote to Sylvester K. Stevens, then state historian (and later executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, successor to PHC) about his experience with the program. “I worked out the wording of four thousand state highway signs, most of which, I think, have stood the test of time.”

Is the information always correct? No, it is not – and often factual information is subject to continuing debate. Markers once placed at Mount Wolf contend the York County community was named for George Wolf, who served as governor from 1830 to 1836. Borough officials agree it was named for George Wolf, but not the individual who served as governor. As a result the markers were removed years ago, and a surviving example was donated to the Keystone Marker Trust. The marker at Duncannon, Perry County, claims the town on the Susquehanna River was “Formerly Petersburg,” and that it was renamed “For the Duncan Family.” The official town history reveals it was named after the fishing village of Duncannon in Ireland. Nonetheless, one of the markers has been re-erected after languishing for years in the basement of Duncannon’s borough hall. Another, recently returned anonymously to the borough, is in the process of being restored. The long vanished marker at Tylersport claimed the Montgomery County community had been named for President James Tyler. The president’s given name was, of course, John.

A marker erected on old route 209 just west of Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, claims the borough was founded in 1829; the community was actually founded 30 years earlier, in 1799, by German immigrant Burkhardt Moser.

Keystone-shaped markers were also found at bridge crossings of significant rivers and streams throughout the state. These too are documented in the old Highway Department reports. They were similarly shaped and cast in iron, but double-sided so one sign placed on a bridge could be read by motorists traveling in both directions. Very few of these are still in place, because they were generally located at more remote out-of-town locations where few had taken an interest in them over the years. The trust’s database includes markers on the Allegheny River, Bermudian Creek, Buffalo Creek, Cherry Creek, Chester Creek, Conewago Creek, Crum Creek, Little Antietam Creek, Logan Branch, Mehoopany Creek, Neshaminy Creek, Penns Creek, Shermans Creek, Tangascootac Creek and Tunkhannock Creek.

 

Manufacturers

Many town name signs bear the name of the manufacturer in small letters, either raised above the surface or imprinted into it, on the reverse side. Two such names are commonly found: the Carlisle Foundry in Carlisle, Cumberland County, and the Geiser Manufacturing Company in Waynesboro, Franklin County. Both firms are long out of business. The Carlisle Foundry was incorporated with capital stock of $50,000 in 1920 by Caleb S. Brinton and Thomas McDonald, Carlisle, and N.C. Righter, Columbia, Lancaster County. Organized in 1869 the Geiser Manufacturing Company was forced to sell off its assets due to bankruptcy in 1936. Four years later the complex of plant buildings burned to the ground as machinery was being dismantled. More often than not markers bear no maker’s mark. Historians believe other manufacturers were likely involved during the decades the marker program was active. No identifying maker’s marks have been found on either the stream markers or on the posts of either type.

 

Status

Many communities are fortunate to retain even one of their original markers. Philadelphia, the Commonwealth’s largest (and the East Coast’s second largest) city with a population of more than 1,547,000, once probably possessed many keystone markers because of the numerous major numbered roads that formerly converged within its boundaries. Only one is extant and is in poor condition after having has been neglected for decades. To the trust’s knowledge, none remain in Pittsburgh and only one stands in Harrisburg. Conversely, Jonestown, Lebanon County, boasts all of its four originals, and also of caring for them over the years.

As the successor agency to the Department of Highways, PennDot legally owns the keystone markers. Because marker maintenance is a low priority, PennDot encourages adoption of markers. KMT acknowledges the invaluable assistance of many PennDot district staff in locating and documenting markers and often assisting with their repair and relocation. More recently, the department has refurbished individual markers located in the work areas of road and bridge projects.

Encouragingly, more and more community leaders and individual volunteers are stepping up to meet the challenge, and deserve kudos for taking care of the markers in their towns. Sadly, those that are badly rusted, in need of a coat of paint, or those that are broken, leaning or otherwise show signs of neglect, are far too common. Even if it appears to have been years since the last paint job, dozens of the signs were obviously cared for at some point in time, as they evidence earlier repairs by welding, bolting and creative jerry-rigging.

The handful of extant double-sided stream markers is usually much more in need of attention. Typically located at bridges in more isolated rural locations, rather than “in” a community, they were and are less likely to even be noticed, much less maintained over the years.

 

Historically Accurate Replicas Now Available

Hundreds of markers have been lost over time to any number of causes. Cast iron is a brittle material and errant drivers and snow plows have taken a toll. Even though many communities have one or more markers, original ornate cast iron posts have been lost and the marker is now mounted on a round pipe or a wooden post. In other cases, it is the marker that is gone but the post stands alone. After it can be reasonably determined that the sign once on a post is indeed lost and not hidden away in a municipal building or a resident’s garage or barn, the Keystone Marker Trust works to remove the post and reunite it with a marker in another community in need of an original post.

To continue its work KMT partners with a Pennsylvania firm, the Spring City Electrical Manufacturing Company of Spring City, Chester County. The creation of accurate drawings and molds made from originals allows the production of authentic replica keystone markers and posts. The foundry has been in operation for more than a century and a half and is the world’s premier provider of reproduction historic lamp posts, luminaries, bollards and cast metal street furniture. With a long and storied history as a successful business, the company was the ideal choice to assist the trust in reviving the marker program. Interest in the replacement markers and posts by communities that have lost their originals over the years has been encouragingly high.

 

What Individuals Can Do

Find out if your town has one or more of these historic signs still standing. What is the condition? If they are well cared for, seek out and thank local officials. If they need work, talk to appropriate officials to urge the adoption and care of the marker, or volunteer to undertake the task. Several hours with a wire brush and a can of paint work wonders. The “Marker Adoption” section of KMT’s website offers helpful tips on restoration. Visit the website to also use the “Find a Marker” link to determine if markers that once stood in your region have vanished. Out of sight doesn’t mean gone forever. Many markers have been found hidden away in maintenance sheds or someone’s barn where they were safeguarded years ago with good intentions. Detective work might uncover them. Many of these have now been recovered, refurbished and reinstalled. Believing their original iron markers to be forever lost, officials in Sigel, Jefferson County, obtained and installed plastic replicas. The originals were found years later in a township building and have now been restored and replaced on the roadside.

Every KMT member has worked on restoration projects; one has personally repainted more than 50 markers in the past two years. They can’t care for all markers, so volunteer to adopt and care for this historic resource in your community.

Individuals can also help by finding and reporting markers that are not included in the Keystone Marker Trust’s website database. Use the “Find a Marker” link to verify if a specific marker is or is not identified. Record the text on the marker, take photographs and share with the trust. Current photographs are also needed for markers recorded in the database for which only old, undated photographs are presently known.

Motorists have long been greeted by these impressive keystone markers enhancing the gateways to hundreds of Pennsylvania communities, large and small. These signs from the past retain valued present and future purpose. They need the continuing interest and adoption by the communities in which they stand.

 

John T. “Jack” Graham, born and raised in Pittsburgh, resides in Perry County. He is a founding member of the Keystone Marker Trust. A retired Pennsylvania State Park manager, he is an active volunteer in many areas of state and national history. The author is currently president of the Pennsylvania Forest Fire Museum Association and an old-time storyteller who performs as Pennsylvania Jack. He and his wife Tobi serve as summer lighthouse keepers at maritime sites throughout the United States.