09 Nov

Lost Capitol Hill: The Zero Milestone

LenfantBThis week’s column is, in a way, poorly named, as it concerns itself not with something lost from Capitol Hill, but rather, something that never was built in the first place. Nonetheless, it gives me a chance to look back on L’Enfant’s plan of Washington once again, and this opportunity is one that I will not leave unseized.

When L’Enfant submitted his plan for Washington DC in 1791, he had not only laid out the streets in much the manner that we are today used to, but also described in detail what was to be placed at different points on the map. Some, such as the location of the Capitol and the White House, were built as planned, others were not.

For instance, L’Enfant wrote of the section of East Capitol Street between the Capitol and the Anacostia that “…all along the avenue from the two bridges [over the Anacostia river] to the Federal house [Capitol] the pavement on each side will pass under an arched way, under whose cover, Shops will be most conveniently and agreeably situated. This Street is 160 feet in breadth, and a mile long.” [sic. The distance from the Capitol to the Anacostia is a bit over 2 miles]

Obviously, this arched way never came to pass, nor did the another feature of East Capitol Street as envisioned by L’Enfant: Between 11th and 13th Street, L’Enfant envisioned a square, which he marked ‘B’ on his map. The notes on the side of the map state that B would be “An historic Column – also intended for a mile or itinerary Column, from whose station, (a mile from the Federal house) all distances of places through the Continent, are to be calculated” [all commas are indeed like that in the original]

This column was also to be the ‘Washington Meridian,’ marking the longitudinal line from which everything else should be measured (in the end, the Greenwich Meridian became the base of all calculations)

Unfortunately, this column was never placed, nor was the spot used for calculating distance. In 1804, a milestone was placed at a point due west of the Capitol and due south of the White House. At the time, 16th Street was to be used as a meridian (hence Meridian Hill Park) and 115 years later, a column was finally placed for purposes of measuring distances – but was erected on the Ellipse in front of the White House.

Zero Milestone detail of north face (DOT)

Zero Milestone detail of north face (DOT)

On July 7, 1919, a temporary milestone was erected, to mark the beginning of an attempt to drive a convoy of Army vehicles across the country. It was the difficulties encountered along the way by an Army observer, Captain Dwight Eisenhower, that convinced him many years later to build the Interstate system.

A more permanent marker was unveiled in 1923. On its sides, it commemorates the first two convoys across the US. In spite of the hoopla involved in the unveiling thereof, including a speech by President Warren Harding, the zero milestone is not used for measuring any distances outside of Washington DC itself. You can see this milestone on the Ellipse, due south of the center of the White House.

As to what happened to the square marked ‘B’ in L’Enfant’s map, you can read about that in last week’s column.

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  • http://www.dclikealocal.com Tim Krepp

    Great article, as always Robert.

    I would note that the Ellipse zero milestone is used by our collective cartographer of record, Google Maps, as the center of DC. And if Google says it’s true….

  • Steven Varner

    The Zero Milestone was actually one of several designed by the same Washington architect, H.W. Peaslee. The Pacific Milestone, a near duplicate to this stone, is in the center of San Diego. Rogersville, TN (on the Lee Highway); Lexington, KY; Memphis, TN; St. Augustine, FL; and San Antonio, TX all have existing milestones from this period of the 1920s. They were indeed used to measure verbal route descriptions for motorists along early auto trails. Yes, the Lincoln and Bankhead highways are mentioned on this stone since the 1919 and 1920 Army Motor Transport convoys left from here. However, the Lee Highway Association was primarily responsible for placing this stone.

  • Steven Varner

    The Zero Milestone was actually one of several designed by the same Washington architect, H.W. Peaslee. The Pacific Milestone, a near duplicate to this stone, is in the center of San Diego. Rogersville, TN (on the Lee Highway); Lexington, KY; Memphis, TN; St. Augustine, FL; and San Antonio, TX all have existing milestones from this period of the 1920s. They were indeed used to measure verbal route descriptions for motorists along early auto trails. Yes, the Lincoln and Bankhead highways are mentioned on this stone since the 1919 and 1920 Army Motor Transport convoys left from here. However, the Lee Highway Association was primarily responsible for placing this stone.