Posts Tagged ‘prime meridian’

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The American Meridian Memorial

As I was riding around the campus of George Washington University on this lunchtime bike ride, I happened upon a marker that I hadn’t seen before. As I would come to find out, it is The American Meridian Memorial.  Located on a small bluff near the corner of 24th and H Streets (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Foggy Bottom Neighborhood, it was once considered by some to be the center of the world, establishing a geographical line that separated the Eastern and Western hemispheres. 

Prior to 1850, different countries measured longitude from different meridians. Because there was no agreement for a prime meridian, the way there is with latitude and the Equator, prime meridians and associated maps were identified in Greenwich, Paris, Rome, and various other European centers. American navigators tended to use either the French meridian at Paris or the British meridian at Greenwich.

Beginning in 1850, the United States established and began to measure distance from the American Meridian. The Federal government officially used this line, which ran along 24th Street, to measure distances on land, survey the West, coordinate the nation’s clocks, and record the start of new days.

However, few navigators at that time adopted the American Meridian, as they owned charts that gave distances relative to Paris or London, rather than 24th Street in D.C.  In fact, the United States continued to utilize the Greenwich Meridian for longitude at sea. But land surveyors welcomed the ability to measure from the new American Meridian rather that a line that lay across a broad ocean.  So as teams of American surveyors and mapmakers ventured steadily westward, those square boundaries of the Western states were all measured in appealing round numbers from the American Meridian.

Oregon would be the first to use the American Meridian in 1859 when it became a state. The southeastern border of the new state would be exactly 42 degrees West of the American Meridian. Colorado Territory in 1861 would be next to use the Meridian, establishing it’s eastern (27°W, Am) and western (34°W, Am) borders with the newly established meridian. The eastern border of Wyoming is exactly 27 degrees west of 24th Street, Arizona is 32 degrees west, and the Utah-Nevada border is 36 degrees west

The United States, via an act of Congress, officially abandoned the American Meridian in 1912, when it accepted the meridian at Greenwich as the international standard. Thus, the American Meridian was relegated to history. Today, the meridian marker is one of three reminders in D.C. of the evolution of cartography in this country. Meridian Hill Park was named for a stone obelisk that was erected there along the original prime meridian in 1804.  The stone marker there is long gone, but the park named after it remains.  And the third remnant of the pre-Greenwich Meridian age is The Zero Milestone, which is located on The Ellipse directly south of The White House.  With the advancement of technology, one day the Greenwich Meridian may be a thing of the past as well.

AmericanMeridian02[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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The Jefferson Pier

When tourists on the grounds of The Washington Monument gaze up at the tribute to our nation’s first President, they seldom are aware of the other, smaller but similarly-shaped stone monument that is also located there on the same grounds, in the shadows of the 555-foot obelisk that towers over the National Mall.  Or if they do happen to notice it, they have no idea what it is.  It is called the Jefferson Pier, and it is only 391 feet on a northwest diagonal from the center of the Washington Monument. However, it pre-dates the Washington Monument. In fact, the original stone monument served as a marker, aiding surveyors and serving as a benchmark during construction of the monument.

On December 18th, 1804, a simple granite obelisk was erected at the intersection of lines from the front doors of The White House, known at that time as the Executive Mansion, and the U.S. Capitol Building. That intersection is etched on the top of the stone marker. The stone was located along 16th Street, almost due south of the center of the White House, due west of the center of the Capitol building, and due north of the center of the Jefferson Memorial (MAP). It was intended as part of a meridian system used to align city streets and in the development of the young nation’s new capital.  It was also the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

President Thomas Jefferson wished for the new national capital to be a new “first meridian,” the longitude (0′ 0″) from which distance and time would be measured. But the 16th Street meridian never became the official prime meridian. Instead, a meridian on 24th Street did.  Then in 1884, the world recognized the longitude of Greenwich, England as the prime meridian, and it remains so today.

To understand how the meridian stone came to be known as “The Jefferson Pier” it is necessary to first understand that the geography of the city was originally much different than it is now. Tiber Creek flowed through that area of the city, and the entire Mall area west of where the Washington Monument is now located was under water. Tiber Creek, along with several other small streams, were eventually transformed into the Washington City Canal, a system that connected the Washington Waterfront, the Capitol Building, the White House and other areas downtown with The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Towpath‘s first lock in Georgetown during the mid to late 1800’s. Boats and barges navigating the Washington City Canal via the C&O Canal and the Potomac River routinely used the meridian stone marker as an anchoring post. Although it was never officially designated so, the name used by boat captains and others stuck, and the prime meridian marker they used as an anchoring post for their boats came to be referred to as the Jefferson Pier.

The original stone marker was destroyed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1874. But the spot was recovered and a replacement marker was erected December 21, 1889. This is the stone that remains today. The stone reads, “Position of Jefferson Pier Erected Dec. 18, 1804. Recovered and Re-Erected Dec. 2, 1889. District Of Columbia.” A line has also been etched out on the face of the stone to indicate where the shoreline of the Potomac River once reached the Pier Stone.

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[Click on the thumbnail above to view the full size photo]