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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (06/2007) Relic Hunter (11/2006) Relic Hunter (10/2007)   Vol. 41 June 2007 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the June 2007 edition of W&ET Magazine

Roads To Nowhere- Bridges Of Desolation

By: Ed fedory

Such roads often remind me of Robert Frost's short poem about a man stopping on a snowy evening, somewhere between the village he left and his far destination. The horse wonder why the rider has stopped, as the man watches the snowflakes slowly descend. And I well remember a spirited discussion between a youth with common sense and an overly cerebral English professor who sought symbolism in every line of poetry. Where she ever got the idea that the poor fellow was going to commit suicide, I'll never know. I knew he was looking for a tree, and so voiced my opinion. Needless to relate, such practicality and common sense was but a wasted effort in English 101. I figured having a doctorate degree would kind of guarantee you'd know which end of the snake had the bite... but it doesn't.

Many of these roads today are only recognizable by the ruts gouged in the forest floor in centuries past. In cases where they were destined to traverse slopes, the roadbed was cut level, leaving the scars and evidence of their existence. Most are heavily overgrown today and often difficult to find. At one time those old roads linked farms to mills... and mills to villages. The more traveled roads were eventually paved over and became the thoroughfares over which we travel today. The "roads less traveled" reverted back to trails, and people moved from the homes that once existed along their margins. The roads became lost in the undergrowth and forests.

They became the roads to nowhere.

For relic hunters, such old roads and abandoned habitations should be of special interest. They are literally "time capsules" of our nation's history and well worth searching out.

One of the easiest ways to find a "road to nowhere" is acquiring an old county map. Many counties produced atlases in the years following the Civil War, and a careful comparison between those old maps and a modern one will quickly reveal a number of missing roads. Given the means of transportation in previous centuries, it makes sense that people traveled from where they lived to where they wanted to go, by the most direct route. Today, we travel a lot faster and in all types of weather conditions, and we simply don't have the need for as many roads as people of the past once did. Additionally, there doesn't seem to be any large number of people taking their harvested grain to mills these days, either. So, that's one of the places I often like to begin my search for abandoned roads.

Chances are you have an Old Mill Road or a Mill Pond Road in your own hometown, and you'll generally find them along creeks and streams, as a dependable source of water was needed.

Searching an old mill site is a wonderful adventure. Bridges that once crossed streams are fallen into ruin, the site of the old mill pond is often little more than a stream with high banks, and the mills themselves have usually been reduced to foundation stones poking from the leaf-carpeted forest floor. On two particular sites I've explored, the millstones used for grinding the grain were discovered. You would need a crew of 20 men, blocks and tackle, to remove them from the abyss into which they fell. However, the old coins, buttons, and other metallic relics we find on such sites are more easily pocketed!

When searching a mill site, always remember to identify the "sluice way" that led to the water wheel. Behind the sluice way you'll usually find a large depressed area that is the only remaining evidence of the mill pond that was used to store reserves of water during the hot summer months. Such mill ponds were often a singular joy to young boys when they finished their farm chores at the end of a long, hot day. Search not only the area of the pond, but the surrounding edges where clothing was once hastily flung into the branches of a nearby tree.

If your remaining energy allows, follow the forest roads leading to the mill. Sometimes they can be very difficult to find, but the existence of a ruined bridge is always a helpful clue. At the site of one particular mill, I climbed down to a ruined bridge and then up the slope to find an old roadway. The road was pretty overgrown, but it was soon evident that besides the deer, groups of hikers or fishermen had used the trail before me.

Relic hunters tend to look at things a little differently. I didn't see the old road as an expedient means of travel from one place to another. I was searching the side of the road for cuts in the bank that might indicate an access way for a dwelling. In the first mile I found two such cuts, both leading to old cellar holes on the rise above the road.

The coins, buttons, old cooking pots, spoons, and bits of horse equipage spoke of the sites being inhabited, on a constant basis, for well over 100 years. The shotgun shells and, oddly enough, a New York City subway token spoke more of visitation than habitation.

Abandoned roads linked one side of an early ford to the other. In many cases bridges have replaced fording spots, but most streams and creeks had a lot more fords than existing bridges. Through such fords funneled the rural economy of previous centuries, and as a result they became the perfect place to set up trading posts and taverns. Soon after the fords were abandoned, so were existing structures, leaving great opportunities to practice your relic hunting skills. The same is true of rural ferries.

Many dirt roads and "seasonal" roads are currently in that transitional phase toward extinction. Not enough people live along, or use, such roads to warrant governmental expenditures on paving. However, in years past there was a reason for that road's existence, and generally it wasn't because only one or two families lived along its edge. Many of the other families simply moved on... into the valleys... into the villages- and their former dwellings are usually marked by moss-covered stones and hidden by ferns just off the side of such roads.

Good research often pays off, but sometimes we just stumble across great sites. You may be out hunting or hiking when suddenly your eyes behold "the hand of man" having been at work. I remember one time when we were hiking in the deep woods toward an overlook. As we heaved ourselves over one stone wall, another stone wall was facing us not 20' away. The stone walls ran into the distance on our left and right, and the area on which we stood formed a depression between the walls. We found ourselves standing in the middle of an old road. From the size of the oak trees growing in the middle of the roadway, we figured the road hadn't seen a vehicle in over 100 years.

With the overlook forgotten, we set about exploring the road. Every place where there was a cut in the stone wall, we searched. In some cases we found cellar holes... in other cases we simply found patches of flat ground and a few large, flat stones that had once supported a cabin. In all cases, we found relics!

Some of the earliest "roads to nowhere" once linked year-round, natural springs, and the creation of such roads and their eventual abandonment makes an interesting study. Initially, these roads were mere animal trails. Animals basically think of three things: food... protection... water. Their trails, leading from natural spring to natural spring, were soon followed by the first hunters in the area. The deer trail becomes a hunter's path and is widened by his quest for food and water. The hunter's path becomes a military trail as European powers extended their military might into the hinterlands to protect claimed lands. Cannons are dragged along the trail to provide protection for frontier bases, and both soldiers and horses need a dependable source of water.

With the frontier protected, farmers and settlers move onto the land. Forests are felled, and wells are dug for a more immediate source of water. Villages are built, and the rural economy travels along newly formed roads along the valley floor, rather than near the rocky shelves from which the natural springs issued. Eventually, those newer roads are paved, and once again the trail leading between the natural springs returns to the animals and the infrequent hunters. Find a natural spring and you'll be shaking hands with our earliest Colonial history!

Dare to take those "roads less traveled" and you'll be amazed at the interesting relics and pieces of our past that will fill your collecting bag.

Suppose Robert Frost was really a relic hunter, using poetry as camouflage? Such heresy would never have been condoned by my old English professor!

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