As sleek sedans and a wailing emergency squad whizzed along East Main Street in Whitehall, a small knot of historians standing nearby spoke of an earlier time, when horse-drawn wagons passed by the same stone bollard alerting travelers of their place on the National Road.

Mile Marker 251 is back at its original spot on the north side of East Main Street, west of Bernhard Road.

It is one of three National Road mile markers in Whitehall's sliver of U.S. Route 40, also known as the National Road -- but it is the only original marker of the three.

The other two that bookend Mile Marker 251 are replicas, said Dean Ringle, the former Franklin County engineer and current executive director of the County Engineers Association of Ohio.

The three mile markers are among 20 that have been replaced along U.S. Route 40 in Franklin County -- as well as neighboring Licking and Madison counties -- with the assistance of a $50,000 federal grant administered by the Ohio Department of Transportation.

It typically costs between $2,000 and $5,000 to either repair or replace each mile marker, Ringle said.

A second grant has been applied for and approved, he said.

Although Mile Marker 251 and the replicas were reset late last year, it was not until July 21 that the stones were dedicated by members of the Ohio National Road Association and the Whitehall Historical Society.

Roberta LaCorte, the first president of the Whitehall Historical Society on its founding in 1999, said the replacement of the mile markers was many years in the making.

Mile Marker 251 was discovered about 15 years ago outside the Madison County Historical Society in London.

Precisely how and when it arrived there is unknown, but it is generally believed a contractor who widened Route 40 in the "auto era" took the stone, and his descendants, unaware of its origin and significance, donated it to the Madison County Historical Society, said Dick Janusz, a past treasurer of the Whitehall Historical Society.

It was Janusz who discovered it there.

"My daughter lives in London, and when we were at the historical society one day (about 15 years ago), I saw it there and knew that Mile Marker 251 was in Whitehall."

After the funding became available to replace mile markers, Ringle said he arranged for a "trade" with the Madison County Historical Society, and Mile Marker 251 found its way home.

Such mile markers are known be original -- or at least from the 19th century -- because they are made of natural stone found in that region; exhibit hard, chiseled features; and usually contain rings on the top for hitching horses, Ringle said.

Also at the top of each mile marker -- always placed on the north side of the road -- is the distance west from Cumberland, Maryland, where the National Road begins.

Below are the distances east or west from nearest large cities, displayed on opposing sides of the same marker. Finally, at the bottom, the distance to the next city is listed.

Mile Marker 251 is 251 miles west of Cumberland, 121 miles west of Wheeling, West Virginia, and 47 miles west of Zanesville.

At the bottom of the marker is "R- 4 1/2," indicating that Reynoldsburg lies 4 1/2 miles to the east.

The city at the bottom, Ringle said, often was depicted only as a first letter that would be known to locals.

Congress authorized the National Road in 1806, said Bill Flood, a past president of the Whitehall Historical Society, though construction did not begin until 1811 and did not reach the Ohio River until 1825, stretching into Columbus in 1833.

Conceived as an "all-weather road" necessary for America's westward expansion, it was built using macadam, a surface named for its Scottish inventor, John McAdam, using several layers of crushed stone to create a solid, weather-resistant surface, according to "The National Historic Road in Ohio" by Glenn Harper and Doug Smith.

Completed in 1840 and ending at Vandalia, then the capital of Illinois, the $7 million National Road already was beginning to decline in use as railroads became the primary mode of transport -- but with the advent of automobiles in the early 20th century, the National Road again surged, according to Harper and Smith.

It became known as U.S. Route 40 in 1925, when the federal government numbered highways, tagging all east-west roads with even numbers and all north-south roads with odd numbers.

About the same time, portions of Route 40 were rebuilt and repaved to accommodate automobile advancements. Its use peaked in the 1950s until quickly and abruptly diminishing in the 1960s on the completion of Interstate 70.

Today, Flood said, the National Road is no longer intact.

While many sections, such as East Main Street in Whitehall, remain arterial roads, other sections are truncated or abandoned altogether.

The sections that remain in use, Flood said, exhibit many indicators of Route 40's storied past.

The Stop 40 tavern on East Main Street in Whitehall, only several hundred feet from Mile Marker 251, is a clear example.

Elizabeth Reed, president of the Ohio National Road Association, said the effort to restore mile markers is continuing throughout Ohio.

Thirty-one mile markers are being replaced later this year on Route 40 from Columbus east to the Ohio River, Reeb said, but others remain missing.

As grants allow, additional mile markers can be replaced and restored.

"I've wanted to put back our mile markers for many years," LaCorte said. "I'm thrilled to have Whitehall's place on the National Road (for everyone to see)."

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo