Just south of The White House near the northern end of The Ellipse (MAP) stands a four-foot high pink granite block topped with a brass compass. Although it is in the middle of a sidewalk, most people walking by are oblivious to it. If they notice it at all, they frequently use it as just a convenient spot to steady their cameras when taking photographs of The White House, or on which to set down other personal items while photographing each other in front of the White House. However, the often overlooked granite block has both significance and history.
On July 7, 1919, a temporary marker was authorized by Congress to establish a fixed point for measuring distances, similar to the Roman Empire’s Golden Milestone. It was as an idea that had been under consideration for a while. The temporary marker was dedicated during ceremonies launching the U.S. Army’s first attempt to send a convoy of military vehicles across the country to the West Coast. On June 5th of the following year, a permanent marker was authorized. The newly-founded Lee Highway Association, which consisted of representatives of all the states through which the country’s first coast-to-coast highway would pass, subsequently presented the granite block, named “The Zero Milestone,” as a gift to the city on June 4, 1923.
It was planned that The Zero Milestone, which stands on the north and south meridian of D.C., would serve as the location from which all road distances in the United States would be calculated. However, people in other areas of the country, particularly the west coast, didn’t like the idea that their highway and road markers would begin with high numbers based on their distance from The Zero Milestone. For example, highway mile markers in California would begin with the lowest numbers already in the 3000’s. So, based on vehement opposition, the original plan was abandoned. The cancellation of the plan also symbolically sent a message to politicians in the Nation’s Capital that, despite what they may think, D.C. is not the center of the universe, or even country. Today the Zero Milestone only anchors roads distances within D.C., and is symbolically the official starting point for the measurement of distances from the city.
The four-sided monument has inscriptions on each side, which read: (North side) “Zero Milestone”; (East) “Starting Point Of Second Transcontinental Motor Convoy Over The Bankhead Highway, June 14, 1920”; (South) “Point For The Measurement Of Distances From Washington On Highways Of The United States,” and; (West) “Starting Point Of First Transcontinental Motor Convoy Over The Lincoln Highway, July 7, 1919.”
Throughout the city, there is historical significance all around you if you know where to look for it. And now, if you find yourself on the sidewalk of The Ellipse, you’ll know at least one place to find it.