Postmaster Benjamin Franklin and His Visit to the North Fork

Benjamin Franklin first visited Long Island unexpectedly at age 17, as he fled Boston in 1723 to start a new life in Philadelphia. According to his autobiography, on a ferry from New York to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, “we met with a Squall that tore our rotten Sails to pieces…and drove us upon Long Island.” Franklin and his fellow passengers made it to Perth Amboy only after “having been 30 Hours on the Water without Victuals, or any Drink but a Bottle of filthy Rum.”

Franklin seems not to have visited Long Island for many years thereafter. By far his best-known visit reportedly occurred in 1755 in connection with a position he held from 1753 to 1774 as one of two deputy postmasters general of the British North American colonies, then the colonies’ most senior postal officials. Franklin is said to have left behind something tangible: 30 milestones along what was then the King’s Highway from Riverhead to Oysterponds (now Orient) marking the distance from the original location of the Suffolk County courthouse.

The milestones are certainly real; the seven westernmost ones are long gone, but the other 23 remain save one. According to the Southold Historical Society, two are in storage, while the remaining 20 can be found along Main Road from Laurel to Southold, Boisseau Avenue in Southold, Middle Road and North Road from Southold to Greenport, and Main Road from Greenport to Orient. Each is a slab of granite a few feet tall with a simple inscription, e.g. “30 M to suffolk C H,” meaning “30 miles to the Suffolk courthouse.”

More tenuous is Franklin’s alleged connection to these milestones. According to the 1991 book Benjamin Franklin’s North Fork Milestones by Robert P. Long, Franklin traveled in a carriage equipped with an odometer, driving a wooden stake into the ground each time it registered a mile, followed by a crew of workmen who placed the milestones. Postage was calculated based on distance, and milestones supposedly helped. Stories like this, especially about the Boston Post Road between New York and Boston, are repeated in countless sources; some even claim Franklin invented the odometer, a dubious assertion as odometers date back to at least the  1st century BCE when one was described by the great Roman architect Vitruvius.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no primary evidence corroborating claims that Franklin placed milestones anywhere; it may merely be a legend repeated so frequently it became accepted as fact. Yale Professor Leonard Larabee, first editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, advances this theory in a letter quoted in Milestoning in Connecticut, 1757–1971 by John D. McDowell. According to Larabee, “Milestones were essentially an embellishment…of no particular use to the postal service,” giving “no good reason why Franklin should have spent time, energy, or Post Office money” on them; anyway, “there is no documentary evidence that he ever did.”

Long Islander Augustus Griffin tells a slightly different story in his 1857 book Griffin’s Journal. According to Griffin, in 1755 “Franklin passed through this island, from Brooklyn, to Southold Harbor, and in a carriage…so contrived…that a bell would be struck at the termination of every twenty rods” (a rod was 16 ½ feet). The significance of this is that, according to Griffin, Franklin “stopped at the inn of my grandfather, Samuel Griffin,” connecting Griffin directly to the story. He also gives a reason for the trip: Franklin “was on his way to Boston to visit his widowed mother.”

Franklin’s mother died in 1752, but it’s easy to imagine Griffin, 90 years old when he wrote, getting the year slightly wrong. And indeed, an extremely reliable source places Franklin in Southold a few years earlier, in 1750: a letter Franklin wrote that year to a friend in Connecticut, asking for details about “a new kind of Fence we saw at Southhold (sic) on Long Island.” This is, in fact, the only reference in any of Franklin’s published writings to him having visited Long Island after his 1723 near-shipwreck.

So it seems Franklin did visit Long Island, in particular the North Fork, in 1750. Perhaps he was on his way to visit his mother; perhaps his carriage had an odometer. But it seems unlikely he ever visited in connection with the postal duties he assumed three years later, or that he’s responsible for the milestones so frequently attributed to
him.

 

 

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