Nantucket’s Most Stolen Street Signs (And The Guy Who Replaces Them)

Just off Cliff Road, in one of Nantucket’s most exclusive neighborhoods, there is a crime scene. The unlawful acts that happen here occur multiple times every year, and the perpetrators have never been caught.

This is the location of the most stolen street sign on the island: Nantucket Avenue.

It goes “missing” multiple times per year, as do hundreds of Nantucket’s other unique street signs across the island. And it falls to just one man to replace them. Department of Public Works staff member Ray Sylvia is the only municipal employee who knows how to manufacture the wooden street signs, and he’s been doing it for decades.

Nantucket Avenue remains the most popular target for thieves among the island’s street signs, but Sylvia can quickly name the others he has to replace on a regular basis. There’s Gloucester Street and Dartmouth Lane in Tom Nevers. In Sconset, it’s King Street, Coffin Road, McKinley Avenue, and Morey Lane.

And that’s only because Sylvia and the DPW had to take drastic (and expensive) action to end the thefts of the most wildly popular street signs: Whalers Lane, High Street, and Shady Lane. Those signs were being stolen so often, they decided to replace the wooden signs with either cement or granite markers etched with the street name to deter would-be thieves. 

And it’s not the only way Sylvia plays defense to thwart the theft of his street signs. While converting every sign to a granite marker would be unfeasible, there are still a few tricks of the trade he uses to make stealing them at least a little more challenging. He now uses star bits rather than Phillips or flat-head bits to screw them into the wooden poles. He also uses Gorilla Glue to add another layer of complexity, and even greases the signs and poles on some occasions, as a deterrent. 

“It makes it a little more difficult,” Sylvia said.

But the sign thieves have upped the ante as well. Sylvia reports that some signs have been stolen by people using a chainsaw or a Sawzall to simply cut off the top of the entire pole to get the street sign. 

The tactics evolve, but the thefts continue.

As island residents and visitors know, Nantucket’s street signs don’t look like the green, metal street signs that are the standard for most cities and towns in Massachusetts. By virtue of the island’s designation as a National Historic Landmark, Nantucket has been able to maintain the look of its old-fashioned wooden street signs.

Which is probably part of the appeal, and why so many get stolen. The island’s street signs are a hard-to-get Nantucket souvenir, and they look just as good hanging in a college dorm room as they do on the wall of a multi-million dollar McMansion.

From his workshop at the town’s Planning & Lane Use Services building off Old South Road, Sylvia makes hundreds of street signs to replace those that go missing each year, along with all of the town’s other traffic safety signs. While the street signs used to be hand-painted, he now uses a computer program to print the adhesive letters that go on the wooden signs. Sylvia still paints the grey and beige colors on the lumber used for the signs before they are cut.

Nantucket Police Lieutenant Angus MacVicar said the department has of course received complaints regarding stolen signs over the years. Perpetrators could potentially be charged with wanton destruction of property, an offense which carries a maximum penalty of up to two-and-a-half years in jail and fines totaling three times the value of the damage caused. But few, if any, have been caught for stealing signs over the years.

Sylvia said the street signs have been a target for theft long before he got his start at the DPW in the late 1980s. He knows there are certain times of year – often at the end of the summer – when more tend to go missing, and in certain areas of the island.

“When Tom Nevers gets hit, it gets hit pretty hard and a bunch go missing all at once,” Sylvia said. 

There is one island resident, Sylvia said, who walks the streets of Nantucket on a regular basis and submits a service request to the DPW every time they notice a street signs is missing.

“Honestly, it helps me out a lot,” Sylvia said.

The town is responsible for maintaining street signs on public roads, and so Sylvia refers requests for signs on private roads to the business Sign Here Nantucket, which can make a replica of the town’s classic street sign. His advice when developers or others are naming new roads on the island?

“Make it something obscure,” he said.

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