Posts Tagged ‘The Zero Milestone’


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]

The Zero Milestone

The Zero Milestone

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.