The District Boundary Stones

As I often say, there is history all around you if you just know how to look for it.  And that is particularly true in the D.C. area.  On this bike ride back to the Jones Point Lighthouse (MAP), I came across a brass-lined window in the floor of the lighthouse’s front porch.  Looking through the murky glass I saw a worn and weathered stone marker which was partially underground near the shore of the Potomac River.  It looked like it could be a grave’s headstone.  But the shoreline seemed like an odd place to bury someone.  So I decided to look into it.  And when I did I learned some more local history that dates back well over 200 years.

What I came across was what some people refer to as one of our country’s first Federal monuments — a District Boundary Stone.  In 1791, at the behest of President George Washington, 40 boundary stones were set in place to designate the original physical boundary of the nation’s new capital city.

Of course the city’s boundary has since changed.  Land from both Virginia and Maryland was ceded in 1790 to form the District of Columbia.  But in 1846, the area of which was ceded by Virginia was returned, leaving the territory originally ceded by Maryland as the current area of the District in its entirety.  But amazingly, 36 out of the original 40 stones still exist today, although some are now in Virginia.  The other four stones are replicas, such as NE1 which was demolished by a bulldozer  or SW6, which was smashed by a car.

Some of the stones are well cared for, such as the original West Boundary Stone, which now sits in Benjamin Banneker Park in Falls Church, Virginia (not to be confused with the Benjamin Banneker Park in D.C.), and is surrounded by a five-foot fence installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Others are not as fortunate, such as NE3, which sits at New Hampshire Avenue, Eastern Avenue and Chillum Road in northeast D.C., surrounded by trash at the edge of a McDonald’s parking lot.  The stone known as S1, the one at Jones Point, is in relatively good shape.

So, the Boundary Stones are federal monuments.  However, they are not treated like any other federal monuments.  For the District, the stones are ostensibly owned by the District Department of Transportation, but the ground they sit on is owned by the National Park Service.  Of the stones located on the land that was retroceded to Virginia, many of the stones sit in people’s yards, and the private citizens own the land on which they sit.  Others are in municipal parks or cemeteries.  But regardless of who owns the land on which they are located, the stones remain Federal property.  And the fencing that surround some of them are owned and maintained by volunteer organizations.

Eventually, I would like to see and photograph all of the Boundary Stones.  And a good way to do this would be participating in the next Boundary Stone Bike Ride, an annual event sponsored by the Boundary Stone Public House in the northeast D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood.  Participants can ride one, two, three or all four sides of the original D.C. perimeter, which is about 60 miles altogether.  Last year’s ride, the fifth annual, was held on October 14th.  I think I’ll keep an eye on the bar’s web site for an announcement about this year’s ride. 

Enlarge this map and then zoom in for the most effective view.

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