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


May 22, 1994|By William Ecenbarger

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.

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.

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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