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Stolen History

Milestones Vol 24. No. 4

By Fred Miller

Jack Lanam refers to him only as "The Thief," keeping a promise of secrecy even though the man has been dead for several years.

More than 17 years ago, The Thief stole a piece of local history. Jack got it back in 1976. The recovery so touched William H. Vodrey III, a benefactor of local history projects who is now deceased, that Vodrey told Lanam with tears in his eyes, "When you go to heaven, there's going to be a lot of people holding the gates open for you."

Except for a small blurb in the late Max Gard's journal which mentioned simply that the Virginia-Pennsylvania state line marker on the south shore of the Ohio River had been recovered, the story of its return has never been in print... until now.

The marker in question was placed in 1785 on a hill overlooking the Ohio River west of Georgetown by surveyors commissioned to determine the border between Pennsylvania and what was then Virginia from the Mason-Dixon Line to the river.

Quarried out of local sandstone (probably by a stonemason traveling with the surveying party), the rough marker was chiseled with a "P" on one side and a "V" on the other, and set into the earth, just as similar stones had been set along high hills at intervals along the border. Nearly 100 years later, another stone would be set beside it when the line was resurveyed during the period 1881 to 1883, by which time West Virginia had become a state.

But in 1785, the 13 Colonies had only just gained their independence, and the fledgling federal government was desperate for ready cash. With the sale of Northwest Territory lands in mind, the Continental Congress commissioned Thomas Hutchins as first surveyor general of the United States. His first duty was to conduct a land survey of the Seven Ranges.

Hutchins began this historic survey in 1785, taking a line due west for 42 miles from a point on the north shore of the Ohio, at the westermost boundary of the State of Pennsylvania.

This spot is now known as the Point of Beginning, and is commemorated with an engraved stone marker along Route 68 at Ohioville. The real "point," however, is located 1,120 feet south of the marker and is permanently under water because of the river's raised navigational pool.

The 1785 marker across the river the marker from which Hutchins took his sighting to determine the Point of Beginning - is therefore a very important historic landmark.

One can understand the anguish of local historians when that marker was discovered stolen in 1960.

As Lanam, former curator of the East Liverpool Historical Society tells it, the loss of the stone became known when the Society, with the backing of Vodrey, set out to move the Point of Beginning marker. It was located in a slag dump used by Crucible Steel and was threatened with burial, so it was moved to a spot along the highway.

When word spread, Richard Thompson, another local history buff, told Lanam he recalled having seen the stone along the riverbank, and wondered how it got down there.

Notices in the newspaper and investigations proved fruitless, and years passed.

In 1976, a man stopped at Gard's antique shop near Lisbon and told him he knew where the stone was. Gard relayed word to Vodrey.

The same bit of information came out in a meeting of the Aboriginal Explorers Club, a group interested in studying and collecting prehistoric Inthan artifacts. Thompson and Lanam were at the meeting.

When Vodrey and Lanam contacted each other, they both knew where the stone was: the backyard of a Hancock County man's home. The man had worked for a river company, so had access and manpower to get the stone off the hill, to the riverbank and into a boat.

"We decided he stole it - we would just steal it back from him," Lanam said.

"Stealing" back the stone wasn't a practical approach, though.

"We could have prosecuted, but we decided not to," Lanam said. The main objective - the only objective - was to get the marker back in good condition, and restore it to its original location.

"Bill Vodrey asked if I would supervise putting it back," said Lanam. "He made contact with the Pittsburgh Lands and Monuments Group. They would put it back, but they wanted us to go and claim it."

Anyone who knows Jack Lanam knows him as a straightforward person. He speaks his mind, tells the truth as he sees it, and approaches problems head-on.

"I just went up and knocked on the people's door," he said. When The Thief answered, "I said who I was and what I was after. He was very sheepish. He said, 'Well, there it is. Take it away."

But later The Thief told Lanam "if there was any publicity on this, he would come out and break it up with a sledgehammer. The way he said it to me, it was a downright meaningful threat."

The Thief also exacted a price in money for his cooperation in the form of antiques he sold to Vodrey, Lanam said.

An experienced official with the Lands and Monuments group came with a crew of two. They and Lanam dug the marker out of The Thief's yard (there were a number of other stones and monuments there that Lanam looked at, but he didn't recognize any) and they carefully rolled it on a dolly over sheets of plywood laid on the ground.

Lanam, calculating the volume of sandstone in the marker, figured its weight at 1,140 pounds.

The crew took it back to the original site, which can be reached most easily by a Penn Power road leading west from Georgetown. (This road is gated and can only be used with Penn Power permission.)

Lanam had located the exact spot by carefully excavating near the 1883 stone. "when they took it out of the hole, it left a mold," Lanam explained. "Just as if you pull a tooth out of a gum."

The hole had filled in with topsoil, branches and leaves, making it distinctly different than the surrounding soil.

This time, concrete was poured around the base of the marker to make it harder to move. Then dirt covered the concrete to make it appear as it did 100 years ago.

When Vodrey saw the site restored, tears filled his eyes. "I never thought I'd live to see it," he told Lanam.

There are perhaps 10 or 20 people who know the identity of the man who stole the marker. In the final assessment, however, remembering his name is not as important as remembering those who restored an important piece of history to its proper place.

From the East Liverpool Review December 5, 1987