Greater Greater Washington

Without preservation, DC's boundary stones are in danger

The first monuments of the nation's capital still stand, after enduring earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and blizzards, target practice for bored encamped Civil War troops, wayward vehicles, and vandalism.


Boundary Stone NE#3, near Eastern and New Hampshire Avenues. Photo by the author.

In 1791 and 1792, 40 Aquia Creek quarried sandstones, forming the perimeter of the federal 10-mile square, were placed in the ground. 36 original stones have withstood the test of time, but their future is in danger.

Tireless volunteers and vigilant homeowners have maintained the boundary stones for the better part of more than 200 years, but there is no funding to ensure the stones get preserved for the long term. DDOT is responsible for the stones and received federal money in 2005 to preserve the stones, but the funding has disappeared.

The stones have survived more than two centuries, but conditions vary from stone to stone. Made of sandstone, a soft sedimentary rock, many stones still bear the "Jurisdiction of the United States" engraving and the year they were placed. For others the inscriptions have worn off over time.

Surrounding vegetation, undeterred by the fences that buttress the stones, has eroded numerous stones while the stones on a grassy plane are in the best condition. Through small cracks in some stones, similar to potholes in the street, water has seeped in, fragmenting the stone, such as on stone NW#6:


Boundary Stone NW #6, near the intersection of Western Avenue and Fessenden Streets, NW. Photo by the author.

The most immediate and practical solution would be to install a canopy over each stone, similar to the canopies that in recent years have ensconced Metro station entrances.

Making stones National Historic Landmarks would aid preservation

In the early 1990s, all 26 of the stones on the DC-Maryland border (23 of the originals are still in the ground, while one is in a basement in Colesville, MD) were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

National Historic Landmark designation, a further step, would make it easier to obtain grant funding to preserve the stones. It would also bring National Park Service technical assistance and monitoring of the stones' condition. But thus far, only one stone, SW#9 in Falls Church, is a National Historic Landmark.

Stephen Powers, acting co-chairman of the Nation's Capital Boundary Stones Committee (NACABOSTCO), says the organization is currently developing an application to submit the Boundary Stones for National Historic Landmark status.

DDOT gets money to restore stones, but funds disappear

DDOT actually legally owns the stones, according to Ric Terman, co-chair of NACABOSTCO. In June 2003, DDOT's Chief Engineer at the time, John Deatrich, accepted legal responsibility for the DC-Maryland stones after Department of the Interior officials determined that a 3-foot easement around each stone was federal property to be overseen by DDOT.

Terman says that acquiring a National Historic Landmark for all 26 stones was part of the draft Memorandum of Agreement between multiple city, state, and federal agencies.

In 2005, DDOT announced that they had been awarded a $200,000 Transportation Enhancement (TE) grant from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to preserve the stones that mark the DC-Maryland border. In 2006, DDOT presented a draft scope of work for the project, funded by $160,000 in TE money and $40,000 of local funds, predicting an August 2006 start date. Later that year, a Draft Memorandum of Agreement was circulated between DDOT, FHWA, and the National Park Service to "inventory, evaluate, preserve, and restore the original sandstone markers."

Six years later, DDOT hasn't started the project, it's not clear whether anyone signed the Memorandum of Agreement, and the funding for the project appears to be gone.


Boundary Stone SE#9, in the woods off I-295. Photo by the author.

"At this time, DDOT does not have funding for marker improvements, but we will be working with District agencies, our Federal partners, and other interested groups to develop a comprehensive approach to preserving the monuments," Maurice Keys, DDOT's Chief of Strategic Planning for Planning, Policy and Sustainability Administration, wrote to Jane Waldmann, of the Tenleytown Historical Society, in January.

Keys recently said, "DDOT does not maintain the stones. Volunteer groups have taken responsibility for maintaining a number of the monuments. DDOT recently requested approval of funding from the Federal Highway Administration to inventory and assess the condition of the monuments." What happened to the $200,000 TE grant that FHWA awarded in 2005?

Barry speaks up for the stones

Largely out of sight, out of mind, the Boundary Stones that lie in Ward 8 have found a vocal champion on the DC City Council: Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry.

"The Boundary Stones are an important part of our history in the District of Columbia," Barry said. "We take this responsibility very seriously. I am thrilled that these small monuments of our heritage have finally been brought to the forefront and given the recognition that they so greatly deserve."

Without public funding and attention from the city, it has largely fallen to private citizens and bi-annual service events led by Powers to maintain the stones. Chapters of the DC Daughters of the American Revolution have helped with full-scale restoration projects at a handful of stones, and the American Society of Civil Engineers, National Capital Section has provided over $3,000 to restore and paint fences around 20 stones.

The efforts of these volunteers are crucial, but it's time to get the stones designated as National Historic Landmarks and for DDOT to help the Boundary Stones get the attention and protection they deserve.

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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John,

I believe the first one was laid, with ceremony, at Jones Point.

Do you know why they started there?

Thanks.

by Jay Roberts on May 23, 2012 10:50 am • linkreport

"The Boundary Stones are an important part of our history in the District of Columbia," Barry said. "We take this responsibility very seriously. I am thrilled that these small monuments of our heritage have finally been brought to the forefront and given the recognition that they so greatly deserve."

I love it when Barry claims he takes anything serious.

by Jasper on May 23, 2012 10:55 am • linkreport

I may be being contrarian, but there's something appealing about letting nature proceed to gradually disintegrate these stones. They're not necessary any more and they were always intended to be out in the open. It's a metaphor that while man's physical creations may fade, his mental constructs live on.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

by Crickey7 on May 23, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

@Jay You got it. The best place (virtually) for information on the history of the stones is http://www.boundarystones.org/

With regards to the stone at Jones Point, that is the one and only stone that Benjamin Banneker had a connection to, a significant connection. For some good insights I would check out Silvio Bedini's The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science.

In all matters of the stones, I defer to Stephen Powers and those he works with on NACABOSTCO as they are the stone authorities on both past and present history.

by John Muller on May 23, 2012 11:29 am • linkreport

John: I see where DDOT could have jurisdiction of the stones east of the Potomac, but what about the ones on the other side of the river? Who's in charge over there?

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 23, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

As boundary stones, they are not "in" any jurisdiction, so it is easy for any one jurisdiction to avoid responsibility for them. Since 1845, some of the boundary stones have been in Virginia. One is in the parking lot of First Baptist Church of Alexandria on King Street. Because Alexandria's boundaries have expanded since 1845, this one is clearly in the city. Another is in the median of S. Jefferson St., right in between Arlington County and Fairfax County.

by John Flack on May 23, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

I've been wondering about the future fate of the stone on S. Jefferson since they have been talking about the proposed Columbia Pike trolley going up that way. Its been moved before, but I think development should work around monuments such as these.

We need to preserve more of the history that doesn't reside in DC proper.

by Tree on May 23, 2012 12:52 pm • linkreport

This is the first I have heard of this issue, which is part of the problem. Why doesn't DC start a public campaign to raise money to maintain the stones? How about school field trips to learn about their significance, followed by a "penny drive" led by the students? Why not get some corporate money, in exchange for a small, non obtrusive sign saying that this stone is sponsored by company x, we do it with public roads.

by dcparker on May 23, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

@dcparker Too much like right.

by John Muller on May 23, 2012 1:13 pm • linkreport

Alexandria is making improvement to Jones Point Park, ready by the summer I think. So access will be returned and walking or biking to the stone a lot more fun.

But last time I checked, I had to lay down on the concrete edge and look underneath. I wonder if it should be re-positioned for prosperity sake and letting folks appreciate this aspect of local history.

by Jay Roberts on May 23, 2012 3:34 pm • linkreport

The boundary stone at the north corner of the District is just a few feet south of East-West Highway. The round, knee-high fence around it can be seen from the roadway in the winter, but it's obscured by bushes in the summer. To find it, look for the westernmost entrance to the Summit Hills apartment complex, the stone is on the south side. No parking along the roadway, though, you'll have to park on a side street and walk a few blocks.

by Frank IBC on May 23, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport

Are these really worth saving?

by beatbox on May 23, 2012 5:33 pm • linkreport

As to starting at Jones Point - Ellicott's survey encampment was set up there given Alexandria was already an established port.

As to ownership of the VA stones, it has been deemed that property owners own the stone as the land was retroceded circa 1847 and the federal government gave up ownership.

The Southcorner stone, SE#1, SE#2, SE#3 no longer designate any boundary and are all in Alexandria City. The rest of the VA stones make up the Arlington County boundary and distinguish it from Alexandria, Falls Church, City of Falls Church, and McLean.

They have done a great job of making the South Cornerstone more visible. Once the construction project is complete, vistors will be able to gaze upon the stone through a new glass/bronze "window" on the top of the concrete vault. The old cage has been replaced by a new cage that also makes it easier to see the stone.

And Beatbox.....YES, these are our the first monuments purchased by our federal government and the origins of our great city. They are worth saving for future generations to enjoy and explore.

by Stephen Powers on May 23, 2012 7:00 pm • linkreport

My friend and I have been hiking the boundary stones a few at a time for the last few years. We just completed NE 9 to SE 4 this Sunday and will try to get the remainder of the southeastern side completed some day this fall.

At some point in the past, the stones had been cared for by the Daughters of the American Revolution, but that seems to have fallen by the wayside. I would love to see them properly cared for, restored where needed, and returned where "appropriated".

by Craig on May 23, 2012 7:10 pm • linkreport

@Stephen Powers, I believe you mean SW 1, SW 2, and SW 3, rather than SE.

by Craig on May 23, 2012 7:13 pm • linkreport

Yes, Craig - You are correct. Got to check and "preview" before I hit "post comment".
Thanks for correcting me and setting the record straight.

by Stephen Powers on May 23, 2012 8:05 pm • linkreport

What they represent is important. I think it's fair to debate whether taking the effort to preserve the stones is fetishly saving the physical manifestation, when it's the intellectual accomplishment that is important.

by Crickey7 on May 24, 2012 10:31 am • linkreport

@Cricky7, true, but the stones show an important step the methodology of how the intellectual accomplishment was achieved.

by Tina on May 24, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

How many other cities around the world still have boundary stones. Is this really of importance when there are other things inside the city or in Maryland along the borders.

As long as people know where the boundaries are why does the stone matter.

by kk on May 25, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

kk - Actually none, especially in this manner. Washington DC is a very rare capital city that had it's boundaries planned and laid out and then the city was built. That is not the norm. These stones are lasting tributes to a colonial age and speak volumes to where the boundary is and has always been. Many of them are in locations that a boundary is undistinguishable and there is something to be said that the original monument still stands strong.

by Stephen Powers on May 25, 2012 3:41 pm • linkreport

How many other cities around the world still have boundary stones.

Well, DC isn't really a city. It's a District. In some ways more like a state. And lots of US States have made an effort to preserve boundary markers.

Also, the Bible is pretty clear on how one should not remove boundary stones (Proverbs 23:10) so that should settle that.

by David C on May 25, 2012 4:01 pm • linkreport

Where could I find a good sized map of the boundary stone locations that could be purchased and framed?

by Brenda B. on Mar 3, 2014 3:34 pm • linkreport

Brenda B. - just exactly what type of map are you looking for and to display how much information?

by Stephen Powers on Mar 15, 2014 7:00 pm • linkreport

Update URL for OCTO's mapping of stones

by Tim on Mar 15, 2014 9:46 pm • linkreport

My daughter did a class project on the boundary stones when she was in 4th grade. What a fantastic project!!! We made a movie and got the entire family and community involved. Now that she is a freshman in college we wold like to help. What can we do???

by Karen on Mar 16, 2014 6:33 pm • linkreport

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