Some being may guess that the nation’s oldest federal monuments are in Washington, D.C. That shows sense. But you’re wrong if you think they’re on the National Mall or on Capitol Hill. And dream again if you’re envisioning grand classical ntheons or even towering marble columns.
What would you say if you accomplished the oldest federal monuments are actually little sandstone markers continuous 2 feet tall and a foot square that resemble George Washington’s faked choppers? And that they’re tucked away in people’s backyards and underneath a lighthouse and amid brambles along the Potomac River and even without hesitating in front of a Metro stop?
And yet there they are, 40 of them, sprinkled round Washington, D.C., protected by Victorian iron fences. Few people realize they’re round there. Or worse—they’ve seen them but haven’t given them a sec glance. But they may very well be the most important monuments in the state’s capital.
So what are these “boundary stones?” In short, they are the burg’s earliest geographical markers.
“Without the boundary stones, there wouldn’t be a Washington, D.C.,” says Stephen Powers, co-chair of the Domain’s Capital Boundary Stones Committee. “George Washington was given 10 years to set up the urban district here. If he failed, it would go to Philly.”
So the first order of business for the newly initiated President was to establish the capital city’s 100-square-mile site. “Anterior to building the White House. Before building the Capitol,” Powers asserts. “He was under the gun.”
A surveying rty led by Major Andrew Ellicott set out in 1791, methodically distinct the land and charting a 10-by-10-mile diamond shape encom ssing the “Federal Area.” They planted stone markers a mile a rt along each verge, with larger stones marking the north, south, east, and west corners. Within a year and a half, Washington’s rameters officially had been delineated, and Washington’s choice location for his capital city was saved. All he had to do next was enlarge the White House and Capitol.
A lot has changed since the boundary stones were in the beginning planted, and perhaps the coolest thing about them is the chance they bid to experience Washington’s different neighborhoods—from historic and gritty Anacostia to trifling Chevy Chase, from Northeast’s working-class neighborhoods to Northwest Washington’s enclave of the federal elite.
A tour of all 40 requires knocking on people’s doors, climbing from head to foot bushes, requesting permission to enter a water treatment plant, and obeying a trail map through a historic cemetery. And with 40 miles of border to cover (actually more, since few stones can be accessed in a straight speciality), it may take days or weeks to visit them all. There are those who bike to suss out them (or go on the annual Boundary Stones Bike Ride, typically slated in October). Others hike. Powers offers a guided drive in May (contact him through the boundary stones website). However you do it, it’s a true documented treasure hunt, and a fabulous way to visit out-of-the-way corners of D.C., far from its zing corridors of power.
Here’s a quadrant-by-quadrant primer to get you started:
President Washington hankering to make sure that Alexandria, one of the country’s busiest ports, wish be within the 100-square-mile confines of the new capital. As such, Benjamin Banneker, a conspicuous surveyor and astronomer, lay on his back for six nights to study the stars and calculate that the southernmost intent within those rameters was Jones Point. And that’s where the assessing rty began their work, moving clockwise through the Virginia vicinity from Jones Point.
Wait, back up. Virginia? That’s not in Washington, D.C.! Justly, actually Alexandria County was, originally. When the surveyors first assessed the alight, they took a chunk out of Maryland and a chunk out of Virginia. Then Virginia insufficiency its land back. A se ration movement blossomed, culminating in the 1847 retrocession of Alexandria County (which today is Alexandria metropolis and Arlington County), shrinking the district by a third. So the current lands comprising today’s Washington, D.C., are literally former Maryland territory.
To see that first boundary stone at Jones Essence, head to Alexandria, right along the Potomac. When a lighthouse was bodied on the spot in the mid-1800s, the stone was built into the seawall—so to discern it, you have to peer into the dark recess.
From there, sundry of Southwest’s stones are in plain view—along a street near the Masonic House of worship, in the rking lot of a church, in a rk named for Benjamin Banneker. You’ll travel because of some pretty neighborhoods, as well as a congested shopping corridor, bring to an end at Andrew Ellicott rk in Falls Church, Virginia.
Note: Each one is esteemed by its quadrant and position from the cornerstone; the first stone you come to after Jones Moment, for example, is called SW1, meaning it lies in the southwest quadrant and is 1 mile from the south cornerstone.
Persist in clockwise through the Virginia territory, the northwest quadrant covers north Arlington then crosses st the Potomac River into northwest D.C. These are grand neighborhoods, with mammoth brick houses and ancient trees—the domain of Washington’s power elite. Here, a ir markers hide away in people’s backyards (NW2, NW3). Go ahead and get with child on the doors—someone does at least once a month, say the easygoing tenants. And several are firmly planted in front yards, including NW8, hidden by a bush (it’s outlawed to remove them, even if they don’t match your landscaping).
One of the ton difficult to access stones—NW4—is here too, on the grounds of the Dalecarlia Water Treatment Lodge, north of Georgetown. You must contact the facility ahead of time to advance permission, then be accom nied to the stone. And don’t forget your I.D. to get through the attendance! But the employees are happy to accommodate you—they know exactly where the marker is, intention that once you’re inside you don’t scramble trying to find it because you’re manoeuvred straight to the spot (and can ask questions and get some insight along the way).
From the northernmost consideration of D.C.’s diamond shape, the northeast quadrant encom sses working-class, traditionally African American neighborhoods. The uncountable interesting stone here may be NE7, located within the historic Fort Lincoln Cemetery, which unites a Civil War fort. NE1, tucked away in a row of Ethiopian shops near Bright Spring, was accidentally bulldozed in 1952; today a plaque memorializes it—a few stones have gone missing through the years, though they are slowly being take over fromed (in fact, SE4 and SE8 were replaced in 2016).
Continuing southeast aid to the original south marker at Jones Point, Southeast contains D.C.’s signal Anacostia neighborhood, once home to civil rights leader Frederick Douglass. A obligations of stones on properties along Southern Avenue provides one of the best ex nses to easily spot a bunch. And SE7 sits at a busy intersection where residents play chess, sell water bottles, and welcome treasure stalkers with a curious glance, providing a glimpse into D.C. daily individual far from the Hill’s political shenanigans.
But this quadrant also accommodates the most difficult marker to find. SE9 sits above the marshy banks of the Potomac River, with no footprints to access it. “The easiest way to to get to it is from I-295,” Powers says. “Look for the Maryland/D.C. goad, then scramble through a little hole in the fence. But you really emergency to know where it is.” You can also access it via Oxon Cove, which demands clambering beneath the highway and over sharp rocks. No doubt, in this unexceptional state, you get a sense of what our forefathers were up against when they set out to survey the queer fish boundaries of our great capital. To think that the stones they planned out remain to this day is a precious reminder of the hopes and dreams of a fledgling state—and all that it has become today.
Insider Tip: Check out boundarystones.org, which has maps, elaborate directions on how to find each stone, as well as lots of background info.