Uncovering the past
They don't know exactly how many there are yet, but there are more than meets the eye. Indeed, that is the very reason the town created an Ancient Roads Committee -- to locate and plot all the streets ever legally created here, many of which have disappeared after a newer or more direct route was created.
"We've found over 200 roads," said Aurelius "Dibo" DiBernardo, of DiBernardo Assoc. Land Surveyors, the surveyor working with the town to help find its lost roadways.
Because of DiBernardo's and the Ancient Roads Committee's work, they now know that there was once four roads connecting Westminster to Athens and Brookline. Today there are none.
They also learned that before U.S. Route 5 was built in the 1920's, the original thoroughfare that connected Westminster to points north and south followed Pine Banks Road to Piggery Road before cutting right through where a farm yard now exists until it met back up with the current path of Route 5.
Those are the kind of discoveries that could make the committee's work politically tenuous once completed. Then, the Selectboard will then hold public hearings before determining if a given lost ancient road should be kept or decommissioned.
"Imagine if you as a property owner are told by the Selectboard that this committee found a road that goes right by your living room," said Ruth Grandy, the town lister who is leading the project. "You're not going to be terribly excited. I know of two houses in Westminster that are sitting right on ancient road beds. The roads were never properly discontinued."
Grandy said Class 4, public right-of-ways that are no longer maintained by the town, commonly disappear from property deed records after about 40 years. To research roads farther back in time can be cumbersome, and she has heard of stories of property owners improving a lost ancient road that happens to run right through someone else's land. But in Westminster, that's an issue for another day. Currently the committee is only up to about 1900 in its efforts to mine through old town records for surveyed roads. According to a law passed by the legislature, every town in Vermont has until 2015 to either identify all their ancient roads or they will be legally gone forever. Rockingham has already completed its ancient roads project and Chester is in the process.
Having already done the first two centuries worth of roads, DiBernardo and Grandy both feel the hardest part of the research is behind them.
The earlier records were the most difficult, they said. Grandy would pull files on old surveyed roads and then DiBernardo would have to find where a description written in the 18th century, in some cases, could be found on the ground in the 21st century. Some road surveys, such as one from July 20, 1846, leading from an inn in Putney to an inn in Rockingham, can be hard to decipher.
"South, 71 degrees, 15 minutes east, 5 rods and 11 links from the northeast corner of John Black's Inn in Putney ... to a point south, 41 degrees west, 22 rods, two-and-a-half links from the corner of the portico of Russell Hyde's Inn in Rockingham," read the road survey on file in Westminster. A rod is 16.5 feet, and a link is the equivalent of one link in a chain with 100 links in it. Both were old tools and/or measurements used by early American surveyors, DiBernardo said. Some roads, he said, are right where they are supposed to be. Others, he added, have been moved slightly one way or another over the years.
"We just found one that went from Stagecoach Road to Kurn Hatten," DiBernardo said. "It fit like a glove. The old surveyors did a good job of laying out roads."
After DiBernardo plots the road, he prints its trajectory on a small piece of paper. The ancient roads committee then overlays the piece of paper onto a map of the city.
"It's like a jigsaw puzzle," Grandy said, as members of the committee huddled over the map. "The red lines are roads we've found."
If DiBernardo's paper fits over a road on the map, great. If it doesn't, the Selectboard will then hold a public hearing about the future of that once forgotten road.
Grandy estimated that Westminster has lost about 10 percent of its roads over the years. And she and DiBernardo agreed that it was important to find them all.
"As an old surveyor once said," DiBernardo said. "In Vermont, a road is where it is."
Robert Plain can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 271.
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