A History of the Keystone Markers

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The earliest known photograph of a Keystone Marker. Location is Tidioute Bridge
Created by PennDOT's predecessor, the Pennsylvania Department of Highways just after the First World War, the markers were products of the height of the “good roads” movement sweeping the nation. Founded in 1903, the Pennsylvania Department of Highways was of the earliest of such departments of any state in the nation and its markers were literally signs of Pennsylvania pride.

One of the earliest turnpikes in the nation between Philadelphia and Lancaster was begun in 1793, and proved the financial advantages of a well-maintained highway. The first federally-funded interstate highway, the National Road, was constructed through the Commonwealth in 1811. In 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association was formed to build one of the first modern transcontinental roads, and its route would cross the length of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, opened October 1, 1940, was considered to be the embodiment of the future of modern travel and set design precedents copied around the world. 

Many publications showcased the Keystone Markers as Pennsylvania's tell-tale; Indeed, it was the Keystone Marker program that cemented the keystone shape's association with the Commonwealth. This 1930 map from the Pennsylvania Department of Highways features the Lincoln Highway and the William Penn Highway and shows the pride the state once took in its system. Notice the keystone markers used in the legend at the lower left. (Map courtesy of Matt Hamel). This 1923 atlas image from the Best Roads of the United States atlas also features keystone markers in its legend (photo courtesy of Christian Busch).

The Keystone Markers are tangible reminders of this great heritage and serve as inspiration for the future.

A History of the Keystone Markers by Jack Graham, Keystone Marker Trust
The historic "keystone markers" of Pennsylvania are made of cast iron. When new they were painted dark blue; the edge of the signs and the lettering were bright gold/yellow. They were mounted on a decorative fluted cast iron post that was also painted the same dark blue. These, of course, are the colors associated with Pennsylvania. Unlike modern town name signs which only give the name, these cast markers also gave the following information: distance to the next town, some bit of information about the derivation of the name, and the year in which the town was founded.

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The one on bottom is visible in the right-hand side of this photograph from 1932 of the Pennsylvania Railroad overpass adjacent to the Wayne train station. Photo courtesy of Greg Prichard.

These markers were a project of, and were produced for and installed by the state Department of Highways, predecessor of today's Department of Transportation (PennDOT).  The Department of Highways Biennial Report for the 1926 to 1928 period, viewed at the State Archives in Harrisburg, states: "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." No earlier reference to these markers has yet been found. Highway Department documents as late as 1943 continue to make reference to these "historical" signs. After that no such references are found, so it is logical to conclude that the program was discontinued around that time. Thus the "newest" of these markers are well over 60 years old.

Pennsylvania has an extensive program of "Historical Markers," also blue and gold in color, that give much information about persons, places, buildings, and events in Commonwealth history. These signs are a project of, and are produced, installed, and maintained by, the Pennsylvania Historical and Musuem Commission (PHMC). A complete index to these markers is published from time to time. These historical markers may be viewed at the website explorepahistory.com. Perhaps because of their color, one could assume that the remaining Keystone Markers were also put up by the PHMC, and thus that a good index to them is existent. Unfortunately this is not the case. Thus far at least, no record of all the Keystone Markers has been found in Highway Department files at the State Archives.  It is clear that varieties of the keystone marker and pole (see keystone marker varieties) were used for a host of purposes, including speed limit signs, no parking signs, directional signs, etc.  A 1938 Highway Department manual notes that keystone shaped signs were used to mark the "Location" of such features as "cities and towns, rivers and streams, mountains, and historical sites."  Their most common and lasting usage has been to denote towns  and water courses.

The markers show the name of the manufacturer in small letters on the reverse side. Many of them show no such names, or the lettering has become obliterated over time. The two companies that are known to have made these signs are: (1) Carlisle Foundry of Carlisle, Pennsylvania; (2) Geiser Manufacturing Co. of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. Both firms are long out of business. Whether the unmarked signs were made by these same companies, or if there were other makers, is unknown.  No other foundries have as yet been connected with the production of these markers.  Photographs of the makers' marks are below.

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Two markers at Beaver Springs, PA. Note the top line differs depending on your direction of travel.

Multiple Unique Markers for Each Town
In towns where the markers were installed, at least two were put up, one on each end of town along the major "state road." Usually this was a numbered "PA" route (PA 45 for example), or a numbered "U.S." route (U.S. 322 for example). If a town was at the intersection of two such roadways, there were four signs installed, two on each road. All of the information on the several markers at one town was the same, except for the name of and distance to the “next” town.  This differed depending on which direction the viewer was going. The photos above show the two markers at Beaver Springs, (Snyder County), Pennsylvania. Note that the top line differs on each as the “next” town is different depending on your direction of travel.

Some of the markers omit the top line about a "next" town, but this is the exception. A few omit the "Founded" date at the bottom, or say "Settled" instead. In a few instances it is evident that the top line letters were removed for some reason. This sometimes happened where new "limited access" highways cut off old roads, so that the old joke "you can’t get there from here" became true.  

Where the markers remain, the communities, or more likely some enterprising person in the community, has stepped forward to repair or repaint them. Being of cast iron, they are very brittle and subject to breakage. A surprising number show evidence of being repaired either poorly or well. Far too many, however, stand neglected at the side of the road.

Some Notes on Marker Text  by Jack Graham (see also What the Markers Donote)
The text of the signs, specifically the town name information, was apparently the product of a committee on which Pennsylvania Folklorists Henry Shoemaker  and Albert Cook Myers were heavily involved. Shoemaker and Cook were the Chairman and Secretary of the PA Historical Commission (predecessor agency to today's PHMC.)  Shoemaker stated in the Historical Commission report to the Governor for 1923-27 that he and Myers had been "actively engaged 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."

The several items of information on each sign include:  the name of the next town down the road and the mileage to it;  the name of the town being entered;  some bit of information regarding why the town was so named;  and the year the town was founded.  In some cases the information about the founding date is not included, but this too is the exception rather than the norm.  Many of the signs reference a previous town name, rather than a reason for the current name.  In many cases why it was renamed is mentioned, but usually not;  lack of space perhaps, or maybe no one remembered.   It was not uncommon for many towns across the Commonwealth to have been given the same name, but with the coming of our modernized postal system, this had to be changed, and towns were renamed.   For example, a town named Centerville can be found in eight different Pennsylvania counties.   Only the one in Washington County was large enough to merit a post office.  A town had to have been large enough to warrant a post office to be considered to receive a marker.  A large number of the signs reveal that the town was named for a “pioneer settler” or other early inhabitant of the area.  Clearly if you want a good chance of having a town named after you, start a new one of your own.  Daniel Herr founded a Lancaster County town in 1877, but he chose to name it Refton, so the above doesn’t always hold true.

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A drawing shows the "historical" marker, from the 1943 Manual of Regulations for Official Traffic Signs and Signals."
Some of the signs give us clues as to the national origin of early settlers:  New Florence (Westmoreland County) was named for a town in Italy - chances are the first settlers were of Italian ancestry.  “Named for an early Welsh settler” is a pretty good clue the early folks in Jenkintown (Montgomery County) were from Wales.  New Germantown (Perry County), was named for “old” Germantown, near Philadelphia, and was settled by folks of German heritage as they moved west.

The village of Airville, in York County, was named for the “pure air in the neighborhood.”  I found it amusing that the remaining sign here is in the yard of a large dairy farm, and on the day I photographed it the distinctive odor of cows was almost overpowering.

Although most of the signs note a date the town was supposedly founded, I have a suspicion that in many cases the actual dates of first settlement are much earlier.  The sign for the Lancaster County town of Lexington states it was founded in 1805, and that an earlier name was changed to commemorate the Revolutionary War battle of Lexington.  As this happened thirty years before,  patriotic fervor was still strong.  The date is most likely the renaming date.  The Ardmore sign in Montgomery County gives a founding date of 1873,  the year it was renamed, having formerly been called Athensville since its original settlement.    Some of the signs note a date the town was “incorporated”  as opposed to “founded.“  This usually happened many years after the town’s founding.  Some note the date the town was “settled.“ 

In some instances the date the town was “founded” according to the sign raises other questions.  The sign at Washington (Washington County) for instance indicates it was founded in 1768 and named for “General” George Washington.  George Washington was a retired Colonel of the Virginia Militia in 1768.  He was not a General until 1775.   The sign at the Franklin County town of Waynesboro gives a 1749 founding date and states it is named for General Anthony Wayne.  This was long before the Revolutionary War officer was a General.   Perhaps both towns had earlier names?

In general, the dates shown for different towns in the same counties give a good indication of when pioneer settlement began - the 1730s and 1740s for towns in Lancaster County for example; the 1770s for Perry County just west of the Susquehanna.   Some towns appear to have been founded very late in counties settled much earlier.  The sign for Ambler in Montgomery County for example says it was founded in 1857.  Montgomery County, which borders Philadelphia is one of the earliest settled parts of the state.  But Ambler is along the main line of the old Pennsylvania Railroad, which was coming of age in the 1850s, so maybe that’s the explanation.  Delaware County, which also borders Philadelphia, had settlements in the late 1600s.  It was part of Chester County back then,  one of the three original counties created by William Penn.  Delaware County was split off from Chester as the population grew and edged westward, and a new county seat was determined.  So the fact that the sign for Media says is was founded in 1849 is correct, as it was a brand new town in an area that had already been settled for over a century and a half. 

In at least one instance the information on signs at the same town differs slightly from sign to sign.  If you approach the Lebanon County community of Jonestown from the north on a legislative route, you are informed that the town was named for William Jones, a pioneer Welsh settler.  If you come into town from the east or west on what was once U.S. Route 22 (a new 22 and a newer yet Interstate 78 now bypass town) you are told that the it was formerly named Williamsburg, and was renamed for “Wm. Jones.”  Space apparently did not allow to note he was a pioneer Welshman.

In spite of the efforts of Shoemaker, Myers, and others for accuracy, sometimes there were disagreements over the information on the markers, or it was just plain incorrect.   The Beaver County town of  “Frankfort Springs”, has a marker that says “Frankford Springs.”  The sign at the Montgomery County hamlet of Tylersport, now tragically long gone, stated the place was named for President “James” Tyler.  President Tyler’s first name was John.  According to the sign, the Northumberland County town of Paxinos was named for a “Swanee” Indian chief.  Paul Wallace’s 1964 book, Indians In Pennsylvania, gives a more accurate account, noting a Shawnee chief named Paxinosa in this area about the time of the French and Indian War.   Sometimes conflicting versions of history exist.  The sign at the Perry County town of Duncannon states it was “renamed” Duncannon for the Duncan family of early settlers.  However local historian Samuel Sheller quotes a 1905 Government Printing Office publication which states the town was named for Duncannon, County Wexford, Ireland.  

The original signs at the Crawford County town of Titusville noted a 1798 founding date.  In 1934, the local Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) chapter petitioned the Highways Department Secretary to replace the town name signs with ones showing a founding date of 1796.  They also wanted the words “Home of the Drake Well, Birthplace of the Oil Industry” to be added.  Although no marker remains there today, the one documented in the 1970s had those changes - the state actually listened and responded.  

In perhaps the most glaring example of an error, the markers erected at the York County town of Mt. Wolf stated that it had been named for George Wolf, a colonial-era Pennsylvania Governor.  The townfolk agreed that their town had been named for George Wolf, but not the one who became Governor.  Thus the markers were taken down by the town years ago.  Only one remains today, and it has been donated to the Keystone Marker Trust.

 

 


Photo Gallery: Core Elements of the Pennsylvania Streetscape
We are excited to present a variety of user-submited historical photos incorporating the Keystone Markers. As we receive them, we will include them here. The photographs below illustrate the variety and ubiquity of the Keystone Markers in the early part of the twentieth century on Pennsylvania highways.

Standard Markers

 
This 1947 image showing one of Lemoyne's Keystone Markers was used on the program cover for the 2011 Statewide Heritage Conference. See this marker and location as it looks today here.

Notice the Keystone Marker just to the left of the tree at the extreme left in this 9/28/1936 photo of the Bucknell Covered Bridge over Little Swatara Creek in Jonestown, Lebanon County.

Submitted by Matt Hamel

  This is a Wayne, PA, real photo postcard, postmarked 1944, depicting the "Five Points" intersection of Conestoga Road, Church Road, Iven Avenue and Aberdeen Avenue. Hidden within the snow-covered foliage is a keystone marker. This particular marker is somewhat notorious for its restoration and re-location to the center of town. The full story is in the article posted here

The location today is seen in this Google street view.

The re-located sign is now in a prominent spot in the center of town, and it has become a well-recognized fixture. See it here.

Courtesy of Greg Prichard

The New Castle News from August 11, 1936, announces that the keystone markers will be used to indicate the location and distance to highway patrol substations across the state.

Image courtesy of Matt Hamel

Bedford PA: County Workers driving a 1929 Chevrolet International Sport Cabriolet and a 1931 Chevrolet 1/2 ton truck breaking for lunch on Sideling Hill Summit. This section of the Lincoln Highway, Route 30 has an elevation of 2195 feet - 1931.  Notice the "Dangerous Hill" Keystone Marker at right.
 

A rare view of a Philadelphia marker, of which only one is known to still exist.

Duke University Libraries

This view of downtown Wayne inadvertently captured a marker at Lancaster Avenue and North Aberdeen. This marker stood on Route 30 entering the downtown section of Wayne, and is now missing.

Photo courtesy of Greg Prichard, from the Radnor Historical Society Collection

Another Wayne marker that is now missing is seen in this color Polaroid. A seemingly unassuming photo can mean everything when trying to identify the locations of markers that are now missing.

Photo courtesy of Greg Prichard, from the Radnor Historical Society Collection

 

This is a rare view of a "site of" marker. It was located at the site of the Austin Dam in Austin, PA, when this photograph was taken ca. 1950s. The text reads:

(illegible)
Site of
Austin Dam
Destroyed by Flood
Sept 30, 1911
(illegible)

Photo contributed by Mike Wintermantel

This marker, found at the site of the Great Meadows, was evidently handmade, and though it would seem to be unofficial, it is still labeled "State Highway Department." Mounted on a wood post, this marker was probably erected next to the existing monument in order to attract motorists along the highway.

Collection of Greg Prichard

Waterway Markers

 

The photograph, above, dated 1945, shows the famous Knox covered bridge at Yellow Springs Road in Valley Forge. The visible keystone marker identifies Valley Creek.

The postcard, below, shows the Knox covered bridge and the marker, at the extreme bottom of the image. In this instance, the marker appears to have a dark type on light background paint scheme.

Photo courtesy of Greg Prichard, from the Radnor Historical Society Collection; Postcard from the collection of Greg Prichard

One of the markers from Blossburg, Tioga County, is shown in its orginal location, near the end of South Williamson Road at Gulick and Main Streets. The notation in the Picasa site where this photo is from says "This is the bridge I remember growing up, without the lights. Note the two historical markers. The cement marker is still there. The metal one has been moved near the Main St bridge." Relocation is one of the most common problems with exising keystone markers. Relocating them removed them from the context that gave them meaning. See this marker as it looks today here.
Keystone Markers of every variety were a common sight along the Lincoln Highway.  Today, much of the Lincoln Highway through Pennsylvania is known as US Route 30.  Shown here is the Loyalhanna Creek Keystone Marker over the long bridge over the Loyalhanna Creek on the Lincoln Highway just west of Ligonier, Pennsylvania.
Marker for Ice Mine Cut from a postcard provided by John Glanfield.
 

Not only were small streams given Keystone Markers, but even Pennsylvania's mightiest rivers received markers. Here is the Keystone Marker for the Susquehanna River (North Branch), at Bloomsburg. This is a section from a photograph of a bridge taken by the Historic American Engineering Record.

Original image here.

Directional and Other Markers

 

This drawing from the Report of the State Highway Department, 1922, shows various keystone markers in their original use: as warning and directional signs. According to the Trust's research, the "historical," or town name signs were created after these more utilitarian signs. Though many of the town name signs remain to this day, nearly all of the directional and warning signs were replaced.

This 1930s winter scene of the Fronefield Building in Wayne, Pa., shows two directional keystone markers. This is Wayne's most prominent intersection, and the signs point to nearby towns: on the left sign (pointing east and west): Philadelphia, Coatesville, Lancaster, and Pittsburgh. On the right sign (pointing north and south): Newtown Square and Media (two more are illegible).

Photo courtesy of Greg Prichard, from the Radnor Historical Society Collection

 

Keystone Markers were used as directional signs, as this photo of the bank in downtown Wayne, ca. 1930, demonstrates. Right next to the clock is a directional Keystone Marker. Its paint scheme (blue and white? black and white?) and messages give some clues as to what these markers (which must have been all over the place) were like. Here's what it says:

 
15  <  Philadelphia
Coatesville  >  25
Lancaster  >  51
Harrisburg  >  87
 

Photo courtesy of Greg Prichard, from the Radnor Historical Society Collection

 
 
 

This 1942 photograph of downtown Lewisburg shows a directional keystone marker, naming four local towns and the distance to them. The towns and distances noted are as follows: Sunbury-10, Harrisburg-64, Mifflinburg-9, Bellefonte-54.

Photo courtesy of Matt Hamel

 

A directional Keystone Marker can be seen in this postcard view of the Bank of Newberry in Williamsport.

Submitted by Jim Carn

 

Another view of the directional Keystone Marker in front of the Bank of Newberry in Williamsport.

Submitted by Jim Carn

Notice the directional Keystone Marker at the left near the automobile in this view of Muncy's Hotel Stover.

Submitted by Matt Hamel

This postcard from John Glanfield is included here not because of the large Tuscarora Summit marker at left ( see also similar marker pictued in the section below) but because of the "Dangerous Hill" marker next to it.

Notice Keystone Marker in front of the building at right in this photo provided by John Glanfield. 8 miles west of Chester in Concord. The photo is of a loaction on US Route 1 North where it meets Concord Road. The building at left is gone but the building at right, behind the marker remains, albeit in an altered condition. The marker is likely a directional marker for Route 1 or it may be a town marker for Concord Meeting, though this is nor the town boundary. Photograph likely dates from the 1940s, predating Route 322 through Concord.   Ferry service advertized on the building at right ended in February 1974 when the Commodore Barry Bridge opened over the Delaware River.

The Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection at the University of Michigan houses many wonderful photographs of the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania and other states. These images, mostly captured in the 1920s, show a number of keystone markers (mostly shown from behind). Shown are three of them. All of these markers appear to be "Warning" and "Danger" signs, rather than the better-known town name markers. These "Warning" markers appear to have been painted white or another light color, unlike the blue town markers. Some of these images are from 1924, approximately two years before the PA Dept. of Highways first made the town markers. 

From the Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection

A top-mount marker at the State Fish Hatchery at Tionesta, on the Allegheny River. Similar top-mount markers were found at other state-run institutions such as nurseries and state colleges

From "My Pennsylvania: A Brief History of the Commonwealth's Sixty-Seven Counties," by Edward Martin, published 1946.

  These markers are a bit of a mystery. They were cast for the Pennsylvania State Park and Harbor Commission. They were handpainted to become speed limit signs, though it is unsure if they had another purpose originally.

Markers of all types were so prevalent on the Lincoln Highway, they can often be found in photographs of the highway. These two postcards are examples.

Collection of Greg Prichard

Large Markers

 

 

These postcards of Denton Hill, here billed as the highest point on the Roosevelt Highway and the meeting of great watersheds, feature multiple keystone-shaped signs. Besides the large marker-shaped "Denton Hill" signs, there is an even larger sign describing the "Meeting of Three Great Watersheds," erected by the Potter County Historical Society. In addition, in the above postcard between the two large signs, is a standard Keystone Marker instructing visitors to keep within certain boundaries.

Postcards courtesy of Greg Prichard

Another postcard of the Denton Hill large marker.

Three postcards of the large marker at Bald Knob Summit. These postcards of the same sign from different times show the two different paint schemes used by the Department of Highways at different periods.

Top two postcards: Collection of Greg Prichard

Above: A snapshot of an unidentified tourist at the Tuscarora Summit large marker. 

Radnor Historical Society Collection

Below: A postcard showing the Tuscarora Summit large marker, along the Lincoln Highway.

Collection of Greg Prichard

 

This photograph from the 1930s again demonstrates how familiar the keystone marker shape was in the Commonwealth from the 1910s until well after the Second World War. While this sign, announcing to motorists on the Lakes-to-Sea Highway that they had reached the Coal Hill Summit of the Allegheny Mountains, was much larger than the standard keystone marker, its shape was the same.

Photo from the Fred Yenerall collection

  A postcard image probably from the 1930s shows the keystone marker at Lookout Point, Grand View, in the Allegheny Mountains. The marker is along the old Lincoln Highway and adjacent to the unique S.S. Grand View Point Hotel, a hotel in the shape of a steam ship. Notice the keysone-shaped sign has a matching counterpart facing the other direction angled at 45 degrees.

This 1951 photograph from PennDOT's Right of Way file shows the Turkey Ranch keystone-shaped marker near the summit of Steam Mountain on Route 15 north of Williamsport. The photograph dates from the time of an early highway widening project.

Photograph courtesy of Matt Hamel

This gigantic keystone marker-shaped, two-paneled sign announced to highway travelers that they had reached Kane Summit, the highest peak in Pennsylvania.
The Stewart's 1929 Chevy Coach and other cars stopped for gas at Bud Myers Gulf on Route 30 - 1931. Notice the large, Keystone Marker-shaped Sideling Hill Summit sign in the background at right.
Large Keystone Sign at Rays Hill with Dangerous Hill Keystone Marker next to it. Notice the reverse blue-letters-on-yellow-field scheme charactistic of directional signage at that time. A 1936 photograph provided by John Glanfield.
This view of the Wyalusing Rocks large sign appeared in a 1959 home movie, which can be viewed in its entirety here.

This postcard shows Lookout Point Grand View and its large marker. The sign was cut from a separate photograph, and placed on top of the image of the view.

Collection of Greg Prichard

 

This postcard shows the large marker at Ray's Hill Summit, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Visible next to this large marker is a "Dangerous Hill" marker. (Markers enlarged in red-bordered inset to show detail)

Collection of Greg Prichard

Other Markers  
This unusual "Longview" marker does not appear to have been a standard Keystone Marker, though its design was definitely inspired by the State-issued Keystone Markers.
  While not a Keystone Marker, this marker is of a similar age and construction. Installed by Historical Society of Berks County.  Location:  Route 422 at roughly 40 deg 16 min 27.93 N latitude and 75 deg 46 min 54.51 W longitude. Photo courtesy of John Glanfield.
 

This cast concrete marker is one of many which were installed along the Mason Dixon Line. Photo courtesy of bikewashington.org
Marker information at www.hmbd.org 

  Installed by Historical Society of Berks County in the 1920s. Location: Barto, Pennsylvania. Photo by Fitzhugh Clark.
  Photo by Fitzhugh Clark.
  While not a Keystone Marker, this marker provides further indication that state institutions of higher learning across the Commonwealth had markers.  See also the West Chester University marker on the Find A Marker Page. The location of this Dickinson College marker is on the southeast corner of W High Street and Belvedere Street in Carlisle, PA. 
   Another view of the Dickinson College marker.

 

 

© 2010 Keystone Marker Trust (unless otherwise indicated)