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HOLDING THE LINE More than two centuries after it was drawn, Mason and Dixon's much-misunderstood border is still the talk of the towns along it

You can't really walk the Mason-Dixon Line. There's the problem of creeks and rivers, including the milewide Susquehanna. And much of it is on private property -- indeed, sometimes it goes right through people's living rooms. But most of all, you can't walk the Mason-Dixon Line because it's invisible -- an arbitrary and artificial demarcation, direct and true in longitude and latitude, but without breadth or thickness.

Perhaps for these reasons, the Mason-Dixon Line is widely misunderstood. It is merely 332 miles long, and it extends only from the Atlantic Ocean to Western Pennsylvania. It is the work of two English surveyors; it was completed before the American Revolution; and it had nothing to do with the Civil War. It simply settled a boundary dispute.

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But long after the border war ended, and Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon died, their surveying job was figuratively extended across the entire nation and became a catch phrase for a complex series of political and social issues. And to this day, nearly 2 1/2 centuries after it was drawn, the Mason-Dixon Line remains a powerful symbol that separates Yankee from Rebel, oatmeal from grits, North from South.

The metaphorical Mason-Dixon Line, celebrated in music and literature, has obscured the fact that the real Mason-Dixon Line is a stunning achievement of skill and courage. Mason and Dixon constantly fighting against accidents, hostile Indians, snow-covered mountains, flooded rivers, wild animals and nit-picking bureaucrats -- used crude instruments to plot a boundary that is still accepted by the U.S. Geodetic Survey today.

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And while you can't walk the Mason-Dixon Line, you can go out and talk to the people who live on it or near it. You can follow it through many-steepled towns where people and their deeds are still connected; across fields alive with the lusty odors of earth and cattle, and over tree-tufted mountains. It is a strip of landscape, people and history.

It begins on Fenwick Island, Del., near the emerald meadows of the Atlantic, marked by a stone just outside the chain-link fence protecting the Fenwick Island Lighthouse. A woman in a velour running suit jogs by the Mason-Dixon Motel. To her left is Maryland and to her right is Delaware -- though in 1763 the state was part of the province of Pennsylvania and was called "the three lower counties."

Mason and Dixon were summoned from England that year to settle a dispute between the Penn family and the Calvert family over just where each other's provinces began and ended. Because of an inept royal geographer, the king's grants to the Penns and the Calverts overlapped. No one noticed for a long time but then sea captains arriving in Philadelphia with the latest navigational instruments began informing the Penns that their city was in Maryland. The Quaker Penns were not about to give up their famous city to the Catholic Calverts. An agreement on language defining the boundaries was forged in London in 1760.

But knowing where a boundary is supposed to be is one thing; translating that knowledge from map to terrain with accuracy and precision every foot of the way is something else. So well did Mason and Dixon do their job that two centuries later in 1962, when federal surveyors found five marker stones deviating from the line, they concluded that someone must have moved them because the two Englishmen obviously could not have made such an error.

Delmar, about 27 miles from the ocean, is the first of many towns strung like beads along the line. They have names like Marydel, ** Penmar, State Line, Maryland Line and Lineboro. Most of them, like Delmar, live bistate existences. State Avenue in Delmar is the Mason-Dixon Line -- south of it is Maryland, north of it is Delaware. About seven miles farther west is the precise southwest corner of Delaware, where Mason and Dixon placed a marker on June 25, 1764, to mark the middle point between the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay in accordance with the boundary agreement.

Vandals tried to steal the 3-foot marker in 1983, but they succeeded only in breaking it at the base. It was reset two years later, and today it is protected by iron bars and sits just off Route 54.

Eloise Morison, who has lived most of her life at nearby Maple Lawn farm, stands in her doorway. "We all have a special feeling for the Mason-Dixon Line," she says. "When I was growing up, my father and my uncle took turns cleaning up around the marker, and that's why it's in such good shape."

At her kitchen table she spreads out a lifetime collection of newspaper clippings and memorabilia relating to the line. Then she points to a map and shows how the line seems to go off slightly away from true north. "My father always told the story that when Mason and Dixon got here they celebrated [with spirits] a little too much, and the next morning when they started off they didn't get the 90-degree angle quite right and so Delaware got more land than it should have."

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As the line heads north, Delaware is sprinkled with tiny hamlets called Corners (Coopers Corners, Packing House Corners, Lords Corners and Susan Beach) and Crossroads (Wrights, Schultie, Melvin and Adams).

Marydel, Del., is right next to Marydel, Md. They have the same post office, but different ZIP codes; they have different phone companies and different area codes, and a call to a neighbor a few blocks away can be a toll call; playmates step on different school buses in the morning. In the middle of town, Delaware Route 8 suddenly becomes Maryland Route 311. Signs on opposite sides of the route say "Maryland Welcomes You. Pease Drive Gently," and "Welcome to Delaware. Home of Tax-Free Shopping."

A young man at the Marydel Volunteer Fire Company directs me to a Mason-Dixon marker in the middle of town. The stone, pitched and skewed by 239 winters, is a crownstone marker, distinguished by carvings of the Calvert and Penn coats of arms, on appropriate sides; they were placed every fifth-mile. Other miles were marked with small stones carved with simply "M" and "P."

Many of the Maryland-Delaware markers fell victim to fortune hunters who believed that pirates had buried treasures near the Chesapeake. Others were removed by builders, who found them handy for incorporating into a wall, or by farmers, who found they damaged their plows. Some were pressed into service as doorstops and curbstones.

About 82 miles north of Eloise Morison's farm, the line begins moving westward as the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. The arc that forms the northern border of modern Delaware is sometimes considered part of the Mason-Dixon Line but it actually had been surveyed some 60 years earlier. Jeanne Benin and her family live in a house that is in the Landenberg, Pa., and the Newark, Del., city limits. The arc runs through the living room, hallway and bedroom and she has a sign hanging from the ceiling in the hallway that says "Welcome to Pennsylvania" on one side and . . . well you get the picture.

Just west of the arc the three state borders meet, and a resurvey of this area in 1849 resulted in a wedge of land, about 800 acres, being in dispute between Delaware and Pennsylvania. Today a sign put up by the state of Delaware along Route 890 gives you a brief history of the Wedge, but the real scoop comes from Enola Teeter, who runs a nursery and lives across the highway on land that was part of the Wedge.

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The Wedge became a no-man's land that was used for boxing matches, cockfights and other illegal activities, she says. There were so many cockfights that they nicknamed the University of Delaware athletic teams the Blue Hens. If the Pennsylvania police or tax collectors came to your house, you'd say you lived in Delaware and if the Delaware authorities came . . . "

The dispute was not corrected until 1921, when it was agreed to have the area and its 100 or so inhabitants -- which technically had never been citizens of any state -- formally transferred to Delaware.

Mason and Dixon began their work in Philadelphia, setting their feet on the cobblestones of Market Street on Nov. 15, 1763. Hardly anyone noticed. Their first task was to find the southernmost point in Philadelphia, which at that time they reckoned to be a hog pen near what is now the intersection of Second and South streets. The 1760 agreement called for a boundary 15 miles south of Philadelphia, but since this would have been a spot in the Delaware River, they decided to move the surveying starting point 31 miles west, where they set up a headquarters on the farm of John Harlan.

From a precise spot that they marked with a piece of quartz, Mason and Dixon made observations of the stars, which they used to determine their precise location. Local farmers who saw the two Englishmen gazing skyward every night nicknamed the quartz the Stargazer's Stone, and it still stands today -- surrounded by a low protective wall -- along with the original fieldstone farmhouse, on Route 162 near Embreeville in Chester County.

From this point of reference, Mason and Dixon plotted a direct line 15 miles south; they were now on the required latitude and ready for the long trip west.

The line was and remains to this day one of the world's most unusual boundaries. It is wholly artificial, wholly nontopographic. Most boundaries between states and nations have been determined by tangible factors -- rivers, the crests of mountains -- or at least by even parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude. But the Mason-Dixon Line does not follow a creek or the crest of a hill, and it does not mark the limit of ancient farms or the course of ancient trails. As it stretches westward, it conforms to the quirky latitude of 39 degrees 45 minutes 2 seconds north, and at no point does it touch any prominent landmark.

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The Brandywine Valley, as well as most of the rest of Pennsylvania, was an important thoroughfare on the Underground Railroad, that collection of secret escape routes used by runaway slaves seeking freedom in the Northern states and in Canada. And the Mason-Dixon Line was the goal of every runaway.

In all, several thousand people found their freedom by riding an imaginary railroad across an imaginary line.

It was during acrimonious debates in Congress in the 1820s over the issue of slavery that the Mason-Dixon Line first came to be the symbol of division between the slave-holding South and the free North. To this day, the line is embedded in the national psyche as an extension of the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland to some vaguely defined point in the Midwest.

Mason and Dixon moved westward with a tented army, penetrating the wilderness with a party of guides, axmen, cooks and stewards. To facilitate marking and telescope sightings, the axmen cut down trees and undergrowth to open an 8-foot vista. Most distances were measured with 66-foot iron chains, each made up of 100 links, and each link measuring 7.92 inches.

Today Mason-Dixon Road in Lancaster County, Pa., takes you through cornfields and some of the world's richest farmland. A series of ever-narrowing downhill roads leads to the banks of the Susquehanna.

Mason and Dixon arrived here on May 27, 1765, and immediately set about the task of determining the width of the river. For them, this was child's play; they quickly determined it was 67.68 chains, or 4,466 feet, wide. They crossed the river upstream on a ferry at Peach Bottom.

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Down at the Delta Family Restaurant in York County, Pa, the breakfast crowd is still talking about last week's accident. "It happened right on the line," explains Scrambled Eggs and Home Fries. "Yeah," offers Hot Cakes and Sausage, "one guy was killed and they didn't know who had jurisdiction. Maryland and Pennsylvania state police were both there. It took about six hours; all the while, the guy just lay there."

"They finally decided on Maryland," says Chipped Beef on Toast.

Delta, Pa., and Cardiff, Md., seem like the same place, but they are divided by the Mason-Dixon Line. It's a long-distance call across the street. Delta uses Cardiff's library. The joint fire department has volunteers from both states. Neighboring kids go to different schools.

The line is marked by a concrete highway obelisk in front of the Service Feed & Supply Store. Inside, owner Marlyn G. Flaharty hands a customer a bag of bird feed in Maryland and crosses over to the cash register in Pennsylvania to check him out. Then he walks to the front door, hitches up his jeans, and warns: "Don't be fooled by that marker. It's about 10 feet too far south. The previous owner moved it because it was blocking the front door. . . . "

West of Delta, a section of Maryland Route 624 runs smack down the Mason-Dixon Line -- York County, Pa., is on one side of the road, Harford County, Md., on the other. In New Freedom, Pa., which got its name because so many runaway slaves crossed here, the road crosses the line without any sign. This happens in many places, and the only clue to what states you're in is a slight change in the color of the road surface, or the license plates of cars parked at homes.

As befits a man of 83 with a long list of things to do, Ralph Donnelly has little time for superfluity, superficiality or supper. A retired civil engineer who has spent most of his life as a surveyor, Mr. Donnelly is a Mason-Dixon buff (he has built a replica of their portable observatory). On the porch of his home in Hancock, Md., a few miles from the line, he agrees to find some markers.

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Before long he is knee-deep in weeds, and then suddenly his eyes flare like a lion who has just spotted a plump zebra. He pulls back a handful of weeds and exposes a milestone, the 122nd along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. There's an "M" on the side of the stone that is in Washington County, Md., a "P" on the side that is in Fulton County, Pa.

Back on his porch, he offers a professional opinion of Mason and Dixon's job. "It was a very great achievement because it added tremendously to our knowledge about the size of the Earth, and because it was difficult. Think how difficult it was. They had to draw a straight line, but they had no roads. They had to go through thick forests, over mountains, through swamps, dragging their equipment behind them. . . . "

It was near here, at Sideling Hill on the border of Bedford and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania, that Mason and Dixon stopped placing the stone markers because the wagons couldn't carry them up the steep grade. Instead, the surveyors erected cairns, piles of stones.

Mason kept daily field notes on the expedition; his journal is meticulous on dates and places, but most of it is taken up by whole pages of mathematical computations and references to things like azimuths and nutations. The original manuscript was purchased by the United States in 1877, and is now in the National Archives.

As the surveyors moved through what is now Fayette County, Pa., but back then was the wildest of the Wild West, there were increasing encounters with hostile Shawnee and Delaware Indians. Workmen, fearful for their lives, began deserting the surveying party.

On, Oct. 9, 1767, Mason and Dixon came upon the Catawba War Path, sometimes called the Iroquois Main Road, which ran from Olean, N.Y., to the Cheat River in what is now West Virginia. The Indians firmly told the two Englishmen their line could go no farther. They set their final marker atop Brown's Hill, about 22 miles from the southwest corner of Pennsylvania and 233 miles from where they started the east-west line.

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It was only October, but winter came early to the Appalachians, and the two surveyors and their remaining party trekked eastward in foot-deep snow. They spent nearly a year tying up loose ends, and then on Sept. 11, 1768 -- four years and 10 months after their arrival-- the Englishmen sailed from New York for Falmouth, England. When he stepped aboard, Mason signed off his journal: "Thus ends my restless progress in America."

The symbiotic pair -- Dixon was a Quaker bachelor, Mason a married Anglican -- soon parted. Dixon continued to work with the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and died in 1779 at the age of 45. Many historians attributed his early death to the hardships endured in America.

Mason declined in both physical and economic health, and in 1786, he, his wife and eight children turned up in Philadelphia. He wrote to Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met during the survey, and said he was "ill and confined to bed." A few weeks later, at the age of 58, Mason died embittered and impoverished. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Christ Church Burial Ground on Arch Street.

Although their last names would become household words, Mason and Dixon are almost unknown as persons. No likeness of either has ever been found. Both died before their achievement acquired its lasting fame. Indeed, the final report on the survey does not even mention their names.

They say not many people go up to Brown's Hill -- that setting for the line's final marker. It's an old logging trail that fades almost to invisibility, then rallies. Gravel has been placed around the marker to hold down vegetation. Green mold is growing on the north side of the stone, the Pennsylvania side. This was the end of the line for Mason and Dixon. There is no sound except the oceanic roar of freeway traffic on the interstate below.

WILLIAM ECENBARGER is a free-lance writer living in Pennsylvania.



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