Posts about Boundary Stones
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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
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."
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