Riding the Mason-Dixon Line


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The Mason-Dixon Line has been a reference used for decades to define the line between the North and the South in the eastern United States. When Pennsylvania abolished slavery the line was used as a reference to the north of which the states generally didn’t allow slavery and to the south of which they did. It was the figurative, and at times the literal, defining line between the North and the South during the Civil War.

Originally it was surveyed between 1763 and 1767 by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in an attempt to resolve an 80-year-old dispute between two of the original 13 colonies, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Mason and Dixon spent nearly 4 years laying out 244 miles of the borders between Pennsylvania and Maryland which runs east to west, and the border between Maryland and Delaware which runs north to south. They placed stone markers every mile along their path and crownstones at every 5th mile. Markers were inscribed with letters on two opposite sides of the stone (ie. “P” for Pennsylvania or “M” for Maryland) and placed so that the appropriate letter faced the state it described when the stone was set. The stones also had some fluting carved around the edges. Crownstones were larger and had a crown/shield engraved on them.

Today I am in search of one. I find a website that shows me all the locations of the stones that a small group of friends were able to locate in the mid to late 90s. Unfortunately, most of them are located on private land and in fields or rugged, treed places that you need permission to hike to. There are a few that survive along public roadways or streets but so few of the roads in this part of the world run on the grid system that it’s like winning the lottery to find one in such an accessible place. I find two though that are about 5 miles apart and seem like good options.

Leaving Aberdeen, Maryland in the morning I ride along two-lane roads to the northwest in a general heading that will take me to Gettysburg later today, but passes the area of these two stones on the way. Just before taking off I double check the first marker and find an “update” note about it and see that the stone was destroyed by a snow plow in the late 90s and no longer exists, so now I am down to one. Fingers crossed.

Somewhere between the small towns of Freeland, Maryland and New Freedom, Pennsylvania we turn onto a narrow farmland road and wind through the trees until we reach an open stretch of road that runs straight east and west for about half a mile. This is the actual Mason Dixon Line and the border between the MD and PA. I pull over and review my notes from the website to make sure we are in the right place. One of the road names was changed sometime in the last 17 years which confuses me for a moment but everything else is correct.

I ride back and forth on the road a few times searching for a stone that should be very close to the shoulder of the road. But it isn’t here. After about 20 minutes of looking, Brian walks over to a house on the road and asks a woman if she happens to know anything about the stone. She says that sadly it was stolen several years ago and points him to the place it used to be. I’m a little disappointed, but it doesn’t last long. I’m here on the Mason Dixon Line on land that these two historic figures surveyed and walked more than 250 years ago. I stop for a moment to sit next to the place the stone was set in (about two feet from the steel post in my photograph) and ponder the history this land has witnessed.

While in Philadelphia I had passed a cemetery in the city that was the final resting place of Charles Mason, who was impoverished a the time of his death. Benjamin Franklin, a personal friend of his, paid for his funeral expenses but didn’t purchase a gravemarker for him. For more than 200 years Mason’s grave remained unmarked. Earlier this year in a ceremony in Philadelphia, attendees of the Surveyors Rendezvous held a small ceremony to place one of the original Mason Dixon Line markers on his grave in honor of his work and place in history. This year was the 250th anniversary of the surveying work Mason had done with Dixon. I cannot think of a more fitting tribute.

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