Greater Greater Washington

Boundary stones: The oldest monuments in the District

The boundary stones that surround the District are some of the oldest (and least known) monuments in the country. But they have survived the test of time, with no small role played by volunteer caretakers.


Photo by the author.

"People ask me, 'Who is buried there?' and I tell them nobody. It's one of the boundary stones," a Mt. Rainer resident said as a group of volunteers applied a coat of Rust-Oleum to the fence encasing Northeast No. 6 at 3601 Eastern Avenue.

This weekend, nearly 50 volunteers split into 7 groups to landscape and repaint the fences encircling the North Cornerstone in Silver Spring, NW No. 9, NE No. 2, NE No. 4, 5, and 6, and SE No. 5, downhill of the Southern Avenue metro station. It was the 4th outing organized by advocate Stephen Powers (recently featured on WETA), and the American Society of Civil Engineers' National Capital Section (ASCE-NCS).

"Having people who live in the neighborhood come up and talk to us is rewarding," said Marci Hilt, a member of the Eleanor Wilson chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). "People appreciate what we are doing."

History of the Boundary Stones

After the passage of the Residence Act in July 1790, "that a district of territory, not exceeding ten miles square" be located on the Potomac between the Eastern Branch (now the Anacostia River) and Connogochegue (a tributary of the Potomac in Western Maryland), the clock began ticking to meet the December 1800 deadline to have the capital city planned and ready to inhabit.

Before the city could be built, it had to be surveyed. Returning to his home in Philadelphia to rest after surveying the western boundary of New York, Major Andrew Ellicott received a letter from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Dated February 2, 1791, the letter told Ellicott he was to "proceed by the first stage to the Federal territory on the Potomac, for the purpose of making a survey of it."

With his younger brothers still in New York, Ellicott moved post-haste to find an assistant with the necessary technical mathematic and astronomic skills to undertake the assignment. Through the recommendation of his younger cousin, Ellicott learned of Benjamin Banneker, a sixty year old free black tobacco planter and largely self-taught astronomer.

After a visit to Banneker's farm in present-day Baltimore County, Ellicott hired him. They arrived at Alexandria on the evening of February 7, 1791 to begin the project. On April 15, 1791, after taking diligent calculations to determine the location of the southernmost boundary and the "four lines of experiment,", the apex of the ten miles square was placed at Jones Point.

According to historian Silvio A. Bedini, who wrote on the subject in the Special Bicentennial Issue of Washington History:

Later, after the boundary lines had been established, they were cleared to make a lane 40 feet in width through the woods for the entire ten-mile distance. The original milestones were also replaced by more formal boundary markers; each of those on the Virginia line bore the date 1791 and those on the Maryland side were marked 1792, reflecting the different completion dates. Also inscribed was the exact distance from the preceding corner.
Status of the stones


Photo by the author.
Of the 40 stones forming the original "ten miles square" of the District of Columbia, 36 remain in the ground. (Fourteen were laid on the Virginia side and twenty-six were laid on the Maryland side.)

Spread out along busy commuter thoroughfares, in front yards, and deep in the woods, the stones have survived. They have outlasted the British invasion in the War of 1812, the Civil War, the swelling of Washington during World War II, the 1968 riots, and the bicentennial of the country and the city.

In the early 20th century, Fred Woodward became a fervent advocate for the Boundary Stones, carefully documenting their condition and location. In the years from 1915 to 1926, his advocacy inspired DAR chapters in Maryland, Virginia, and DC to organize the placement of iron wrought fences around the stones.

SE No. 4, at the intersection of Southern Avenue and Naylor Road SE (most likely passed by John Wilkes Booth as he escaped Washington) was hit by a truck in the mid-1980s. In the early 1990s, when David Doyle of the Maryland Society of Surveyors, was trying to locate SE No. 4, a maintenance worker emerged from the nearby King's Crossing apartment building. "I think I know what you might be looking for," he said. "I knew some day somebody would be along."

In the apartment building's basement was SE No. 4. Since then, the stone has been maintained in Doyle's suburban Maryland garage, waiting to be placed back in the ground.

At different varying points in time, the stones have been added to the National Register of Historic Places. However, only Southwest No. 9, is currently a National Historic Landmark.

"They are the first national monuments that we have," says Gayle Harris, Registrar of the District of Columbia Daughters of the American Revolution. "We try to make a lot of noise so people recognize the stones."

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia

Comments

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I think I live near SW 9, is that the one in Arlington?

I guess I live near SE 9 and the corner stone too, since I live near the EFC metro.

by Michael Perkins on Oct 25, 2011 10:43 am • linkreport

Neat. It might be that the stones have lasted so long because people don't know the significance of them.

by aaa on Oct 25, 2011 10:56 am • linkreport

I have personally laid eyes on NE2 and NE6.

NE2 is very transit-accessible, standing only about 2 blocks from the Takoma Metro station. NE6 is on one of my bike routes into the city.

by Matt Johnson on Oct 25, 2011 11:05 am • linkreport

Nice write up. I recall years ago seeing a different style of stone on Wisconsin Avenue at the DC-Maryland border across from the Friendship Heights Metro Bus terminal, but I don't recall seeing it since the construction there. Any ideas about it. I did get a photo of it, and recall it having a stylization of the Maryland crest on one side.

by Adam on Oct 25, 2011 11:09 am • linkreport

SW2 is less than a 100 yards from King Street Metro. Very accessible.

by Rj on Oct 25, 2011 11:16 am • linkreport

I walked by the stone @ 34th and Eastern a few times before reading the plaque. It was a treat to be that close to history. It's not something you would notice unless you are on foot b/c it's in someone's front yard, inside the iron fence, which is inside a chain link fence. Thousands of people drive on Eastern every day and probably have no clue that the stones are there.

by thump on Oct 25, 2011 12:44 pm • linkreport

I live about a block from NW 7, which is in the front yard of 5600 Western Ave and easily viewable, near Friendship Heights metro. When the house was for sale recently my wife and I wished we had to the money to buy the place, as having a piece of history like that in your yard would be a rare treat. (Plus, it's a nice house in a very walkable area.)

NW 6 & 8 are also both very accessible just off Western Ave.

by DCxNW on Oct 25, 2011 2:07 pm • linkreport

Ooh!!! I live right near number 8. It's on the Maryland side of Western Ave. I'm less than a block in on the DC side. Brush with greatness!!!

by Tsar Bomba on Oct 25, 2011 2:21 pm • linkreport

@DCxNW, "I live about a block from NW 7, which is in the front yard of 5600 Western Ave"

And that address is on the Maryland side of the road (at least according to Google Maps.) I guess that means that Western Avenue (and Eastern too?) are totally within DC?

by Lance on Oct 25, 2011 2:45 pm • linkreport

Yes.

by Neil Flanagan on Oct 25, 2011 2:52 pm • linkreport

@Lance:
Yes. Eastern, Western, and Southern Avenues are all entirely within the District. However, the homes and businesses that face those streets on the Maryland sides are in Maryland.

This can create issues for property owners fronting on Eastern, Western, and Southern. For example, DDOT would be responsible for granting curb cuts. But residents don't have a (District) council member to complain to if there's a bureaucratic snafu.

As an interesting side note, Montgomery County had at one time proposed a section of Western Avenue to be constructed near Silver Spring. That section of Western Avenue would have been in Maryland, not the District. But it was never built.

by Matt Johnson on Oct 25, 2011 3:35 pm • linkreport

I live on Eastern Avenue (on the Maryland side), and this status leads to all kinds of wackiness: We can't park on our own street (for more than 2 hours), since the street is in DC and we're not DC residents. When it snows, some buildings don't shovel their sidewalks, and no one can make them, since the property owner is responsible for shoveling the sidewalk, and the sidewalk is in DC but the property is in Maryland.

by BZ on Oct 25, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

I live a block from NE1 (the stone isn't there anymore, but there's a plaque marking where it used to be, in front of the Tiramisu cafe), so this summer I started a project to bike to all the boundary stones. So far I've attempted all of the stones on the DC/Maryland border, and successfully reached 22 out of 26; the 14 on the Virginia side will be next. Many thanks to boundarystones.org for making this possible.

Since boundarystones.org doesn't appear to list any contact info, maybe people here will be able to answer my questions about the ones I couldn't find.

SE4: Obviously I couldn't get to this one, since (as discussed in the post) it's in David Doyle's garage, but I look forward to visiting it one day.

NW5: This one is located inside the grounds of the Dalecarlia Reservoir. (So is NW4, but I'm counting that one, since I could see it through the fence from the Capital Crescent Trail.) I followed the directions on boundarystones.org, but the "large hole in the fence" doesn't seem to be there anymore; does anyone know how current the information on the site is? I also tried calling the phone numbers listed there, but got no answer. Has anyone been to this stone recently?

SE8 and SE9: Same basic questions - is the information on the site still valid? If not, can anyone provide more current directions? (I've been doing this the low-tech way, without a GPS device.) At SE8, I couldn't find the pipe, the mound of gravel, etc., and I also noticed that
there was some new construction around there (i.e. some buildings that looked new, and also some construction sites), so I wonder whether those landmarks in fact aren't there anymore. At SE9, I tried to follow the directions, but gave up when I reached the lake of Inferi. But seriously, I think I got as far as the shoreline trail, but the trail didn't seem to continue all the way around. I tried hiking through the woods a little bit, but gave up. Was I on the right track? Is the trail no longer where it once was, or did I make a wrong turn somewhere?

by BZ on Oct 25, 2011 6:45 pm • linkreport

Cool. A GGW post which mentions both the DAR and Mt Rainer. You don't see that everyday...

by DavidDuck on Oct 25, 2011 8:54 pm • linkreport

@Adam

That type of stone was erected by the Garden Club of America in 1933 for the bicentennial of George Washington. Six pairs of stones were errected on the DC line although I only know of four that exist(Westmoreland Circle, Wisconsin Ave, Chevy Chase Circle, and Georgia Avenue). I would be interested to know the locations of the other two if they still exist

by Cyrus on Oct 25, 2011 8:55 pm • linkreport

Google map of the corner stones: http://www.boundarystones.org/

by Jasper on Oct 25, 2011 9:09 pm • linkreport

Very cool. The only other boundary stones I had read about still extant are some of the Mason-Dixon ones on the PA-MD border.

by JQ on Oct 26, 2011 10:02 am • linkreport

@Matt Johnson Glad that part of Western Ave. was never built, it would have gone right through Rock Creek Park!

I live off Western Ave., near Westmoreland Cir., pretty sure DDOT hasn't placed parking restrictions on the Maryland side of Western Ave., well at least near Westmoreland Circle. I think there are restrictions closer to Friendship Heights and Chevy Chase Cir.

by Frank on Oct 26, 2011 11:21 am • linkreport

Hi John,

You stated that 36 of the original 40 boundary stones are extant. Besides NE #1 and SE #4, what are the other two?

by Jerry A. McCoy on Oct 26, 2011 11:24 am • linkreport

Of the 40 stones forming the original "ten miles square" of the District of Columbia, 36 remain in the ground.

Jerry,

Thanks for your note. I am not a stones expert, but should clarify that as I understand there are 38 stones in the ground. But not all are original.

For example, SE#8 is underneath a 8 feet of filler in the back of DC Village. Photo here>/a>.

Regarding SE#8... via BoundaryStones.org

The original stone was removed in 1958 during construction and then either lost or stolen from a storage facility before it could be reset in the ground. On March 23, 1962, DAR placed a new inscription-less stone in the same location along with the original stone's iron cage. By 1972, it too was in trouble, as described by Edwin Darby Nye in a paper read that year before the Columbia Histrocial Society: "SE8, at the far end of the D.C. Village Area, has become a victim of a large land-fill operation, involving the D.C. auto impounding area, the new sewage treatment plant, and an eighteen-hole golf course being constructed by the National Park Service. SE8 is covered with some eight feet of landfill. A sixty-inch concrete pipe has been placed over the stone, iron fencing and all, and a cover placed over it to protect it.
Additionally, SW#2 is not an original.

Regarding SE#8... via BoundaryStones.org

7 Russell Road: east side of Russell Road just north of King Street. This is neither the original stone nor the original location. Baker and Woodward reported the original stone to be missing as of the late 1800s, and DAR records show that the current stone was placed at this location in 1920. The original stone was located about 0.35 northwest of this replacement. According to Woodward, the original "stone was evidently placed on the east side, and very close to, [King Street], on the eastern side of Shuter's Hill, in a subdivision known as Spring Park," which is now called Rosemont.

by John M on Oct 26, 2011 12:02 pm • linkreport

Second "Regarding" should read Regarding SW#2...

by John M on Oct 26, 2011 12:04 pm • linkreport

Is Eastern Ave always entirely (or mostly entirely) within the District? I am mostly curious about the disconnected sections between Carroll Ave & 16th Street adjoining Takoma Park and Silver Spring.

It has always interested me that there are some lots that are split between Maryland and the district. Must be fun to buy or sell such a lot. I can only find one building that seems to be in both places, though, on the eastern side of Georgia Ave...

by DavidDuck on Oct 26, 2011 6:48 pm • linkreport

@Frank:
No, the Montgomery County portion of Western Avenue would not have gone through Rock Creek Park. It would have been a short segment connecting Grubb Road to East-West Highway.

by Matt Johnson on Oct 26, 2011 11:54 pm • linkreport

Glad to see I'm not the only person fascinated by these half-buried lumps of rock--I visited all of the publicly-accessible boundary stones in Virginia for the story I did for the Post's Sunday Source section (RIP) in 2007.

Most of them aren't hard to find, but SW4 is half-hidden by shrubbery alongside a busy block of King Street and South is almost underneath the Jones Point lighthouse (I think it's supposed to be more accessible after they finish renovating that park). If you're not driving, SW1, SW3, SW9 and West are the most accessible among the original stones in Virginia--aka Alexandria, D.C. and Alexandria County, D.C.--and also happen to be in reasonably good shape.

- RP

by Rob Pegoraro on Oct 27, 2011 1:38 am • linkreport

Visit all the boundary stones at http://boundarystones.og.

by Boundary Stone on Oct 28, 2011 9:14 am • linkreport

BZ,

http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=5163055 approximates the path I took to get to SE9 in 2006. I updated the description on the site.

I haven't visited most of the stones in a few years, so some of the information on the site may be outdated. I visited all of the stones the old-fashioned way too--no GPS and all via public transportation.

by boundarystones.org on Oct 28, 2011 9:35 am • linkreport

The Northwest Current has a story in this week's edition. pgs. 7 & 10

http://currentnewspapers.com/admin/uploadfiles/NW%2010.26.11%201.pdf

by Boundary Stoned in DC on Oct 28, 2011 9:51 am • linkreport

Also BZ, I updated the contact information for scheduling a visit to the two stones on the water treatment plant's grounds.

by boundarystones.org on Oct 28, 2011 10:07 am • linkreport

Thank you!!!

by BZ on Oct 28, 2011 10:10 am • linkreport

Learn more about volunteering to help restore the fences and contact information to do so:

http://asce-ncs.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=288&Itemid=57

Stones Advocate, Stephen Powers, discusses the Stones and the 10/22/11 fence restoration project on behalf of Mt. Vernon Estate:

http://www.georgewashingtonwired.org/2011/11/02/video-washington-boundary-stones-preserved/

by DCStones on Nov 4, 2011 10:45 pm • linkreport

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