14 Oct 2003

The Northeast Stones

It is a historic baseball week. Yesterday, the Yankees took a second game from the Red Socks at fabled Fenway Park, and will likely eject the Sox from their chance at the World Series. The Cubs were stunned by the Marlins. It was one of the appalling moments in sports. A fan reached out to catch a foul ball in the eighth inning. He deflected it from the glove of the Cubbie outfielder. Marlins advanced and then scored eight runs. The Cubs then went out one-two-three in the ninth inning and the Windy City paused, wondering if there really was a curse. The fan who deflected the ball was escorted out of the stadium by police for his safety.

It is an exciting end to a season to which I paid absolutely no attention. I was rallying from the three day weekend. It had been a marvelous Columbus Day. The skates felt good on my feet in the lowering light, and I felt like I had accomplished something in the local history department. Three days off had given me the chance to get all the chores out of the way and left me some time left over. I used the gift to go find some of the Stones I had missed. They are very historic.

But of course there is history, and then there is history.

This week has a bunch of it. An American diplomatic convoy got blown up. The only interesting thing about it was that the event did not happen in Iraq, but rather the Gaza Strip. Too soon to tell if this is a trend or an aberration. That is news, not history. That would be more like the anniversary this week of William the Conqueror's victory over the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Nothing was ever quite the same after that in Western history. That was a big date. There are other, lesser ones. There are Chinese in orbit this week, put their by their own volition. Closer to home, in mid-October of 1775, the Continental Congress ordered the construction of a Naval Fleet and hence this is the birthday of the Navy. Two hundred and twenty eight years ago. I served 27 years of active duty, or roughly ten percent of the time the Naval Fleet has existed. That number startles me. Could our history be only that long, ten Naval officers strung end to end since the beginning of the Fleet?

Seven years later, in 1792, the cornerstone of what we know as the White House was laid with great ceremony. They called it something else then, the President's Palace or the President's Mansion, because there wasn't enough of it to be much color other than that which dominated the new capital.

Which was a dark reddish-brown. The color of mud.

The British would be back to burn the place down in twenty years. They were opposed gallantly by 500 United States Marines on the high ground at the Bladensburg Road, near the NE 7 Boundary Stone of the District. The Marines were doughty but outnumbered. Intelligence was bad. Their General was captured and the victorious Brits swept past the Boundary Stone with nothing to oppose their sack of the New Rome. President Madison fled the Capitol and his new house, still unfinished, was put to the torch as the victors drank ale at Rhodes Tavern and toasted the flames.

The British left town in good order before the startled Americans could respond. Things proceeded at a more leisurely pace in those days. But one project had been handled with alacrity by the new Republic. That was the placement of the Boundary stones in a precise diamond, nine to each side at one mile intervals. At the cardinal points, North, East, South and West, somewhat grander stones were erected. They were all the same, modest stones of sandstone, square and solid, rounded on the top. Some of them are still at their original height, perhaps three feet tall. Some have sunk into the soil, and some have cracked and failed. On a well preserved stone, the side facing the District has an inscription in Jeffersonian script reading: "Jurisdiction of the United States." On the outside face is carved the name of the State it faces, Maryland or Virginia. There were forty stones, all told, and they were placed when the nation was new and the land they bounded was largely swamp and wilderness.

DC is a strange city, as you know, and I have been delighted to share the exploration of it with you. Most commuters never see it. I have slogged across it many times, since I have had business at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, and the National Institutes of Health. Both campuses are located on the Wisconsin Avenue corridor, flanking the great boulevard as it passes out of the District and back into Maryland proper. Sometimes I would just drive through town, through the official part of town. The frontier begins somewhere north of K Street where the lobbyists and the lawyers work but do not live. Things bustle there during the week and there is an eerie calm on holidays like Columbus Day when the Government is closed and the commuters do o have to slog north from Virginia or south from The Free State. Or points further away, as far as West Virginia or Pennsylvania. I'm sure there are people who come from further away than that, but if they do there must be some creative arrangement, a pied a terre in the city, perhaps, to make the awful trip more bearable.

Some of the Political types do that, commuting from New York City or Boston to make policy and escape as fast as they can.

I have always approached the Capital from Virginia. There is no easy way to cross town, not at the calmest moments. That is why the Northeast Boundary Stones were the last to tackle. I had tried to visit them before, but the flood plain of the Anacostia River stymied me. I did my homework before I got in the car. According to the map, Eastern Avenue drove right down the north-east side of the diamond. It doesn't though. The Anacostia interrupts the stately geometry. A thing called the Aquatic Garden cuts Eastern abruptly at the junction of I-295, and the only way to go is right, down toward NE Eight and Nine, and the stately and forlorn East Stone that sits in lonely splendor in the woods across from a boarded-up town house.

I had made this turn before, plunging south into the on-the-skids segregated heart of Ward Eight. Passing a crowd of the Fruit of Islam bodyguards to the Black Muslim Temple I knew that it would behoove me to be professional and quick on my tour. So being unable to find Eastern Avenue gave me the SW section of the diamond, which I had hoped to save for last.

I followed the stones clockwise that day, picking up at the two o'clock position on the diamond, rounding the corner at three o'clock and heading toward the Potomac at six o'clock. I followed the path of the survey party that placed the stones marking the boundary of the District of Columbia, one mile apart, ten miles on a side. Two thirds of the land came from Maryland and one third from Virginia. From here the survey party continued northwest and then up and around the perimeter. They spent the better part of a year plowing through the trees and the swamps and over the hills, dragging the stones in wagons, surveying as they went. A back-breaking two-year project, it was, and no one thought a thing about the fact that an African American was the navigator.

The first stone is the South Stone. It is located at the Jones Point Lighthouse in Alexandria, near where the trucks boom over the crumbling old Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the piers of the bold new bridge cut across the park almost aboveit. To get a look at the First Stone you have to walk onto the rocks along the riverbank directly in front of the lighthouse. For an easier view, there is a peephole directly above the stone next to the little plaque at the edge of the lighthouse lawn. They started at this point closest to George Washington's plantation at Mount Vernon. Finding the stones in the Virginia part of the District is a little more problematic than in the District proper, since it was retroceeded to the Old Dominion in 1847. The Federal government couldn't make the jurisdiction work across the broad Potomac. This former piece of the District of Columbia is today the County of Arlington, where I am happy to live, and a section of the City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Many of the stones are easy to find. That is only logical, since they form real political boundaries in law and custom. Once you get the rhyme of their placement, on the left or right of the street, and set the odometer, they pop up like clockwork.. I have scooped most of those up already, thirty or more of them. For example, the Southwest stones march resolutely from the seawall through Old Town and out the Leesburg Pike. Southwest Stone 6 can be found very easily in Virginia on the median of Jefferson St., between Leesburg Turnpike and Columbia Pike. It now marks the boundary between Arlington and Fairfax Counties. Most people driving along Jefferson St. probably don't realize its significance, or perhaps think a settler or Plantation owner is buried underneath it. The Virginia stones are mostly in prosperous neighborhoods, and there is no apprehension in trying to find them. No danger, just an occasional wrong turn where the farm lanes and turnpikes have shifted over the centuries.

Southwest Stone 9 sits in a pretty little park in a quiet neighborhood on Van Buren Street, very near the East Falls Church subway station, marking the boundary between the City of Falls Church and Arlington County, The West Stone rests in a small park maintained by the City of Falls Church and the Counties of Arlington and Fairfax, Virginia, where all three jurisdictions come together at a point. Someone placed bricks to mark the approximate boundary line, Falls Church is on the left and Arlington on the right. The park can be reached quite easily from Arizona St. in Arlington if you care to look for it

The task this week was not as easy. But with difficulty and travail comes great satisfaction.

I took I-295 to Eastern Avenue thinking I could get around the Aquatic Garden somehow. I had the option of driving around the Beltway clockwise like the survey team, to plunge down into the District on Georgia Avenue and hit the North Stone. Then I could follow Eastern Avenue directly southeast. I was tempted by the direct route, though and succumbed to the temptation of Pennsylvania Avenue and its bridge across the Anacostia where the freeway ends. Then I waited three series of traffic light changes, only ten or fifteen minutes waiting since it was a Federal Holiday and traffic was light.

Then onto I-295 to Eastern Avenue and the great barrier of the floodplain to the north. In the end, the only way to go north was to get back on the expressway and lose myself in a dizzying series of off-ramps until I found myself on Bladensburg Road, headed back west from Maryland. I intersected Eastern just northwest of NE Stone six. I headed south to find the southernmost stone before the Anacostia Interruption. Eastern Avenue veers off to the southwest at what had been Fort Lincoln, near the high ground of Bladensburg where the Marines made their stand. The true line of the District is now in the cemetery. My information said it was located near a maintenance building, but try as I might, I couldn't find it.

I found a lot of other things, though. It is a marvelous cemetery. The vista from the high ground was impressive. Management has preserved part of the Civil War rampart of the fort and there is the stunning memorial to the dead of the 1812 war. "Semper Fidelis!" reads the inscription. It makes you proud of the Marines who confronted the invaders. I suppose they are not remembered because the loss was so humiliating.

I looked around for a while, the monuments placid under brilliant blue skies with that hint of crispness in the air. Then I gave up and drove out to get on Eastern bound for the northwest. I figure I can always call the Fort Lincoln management and see what they have done with their stone. I had street addresses for the next three stones, SE 3, 4 and 5. They in the yards of private residences, still in their cages just as the Daughters of the American Revolution put them in 1917. The DAR claims the stones as their own, and caused the decorative cages to be placed around all the stones they could find in 1917. It was a burst of patriotic spirit and thank God they did, else America's first monuments would have disappeared as certainly as the markers to the District's Glorious Dead of the First World War. I have heard that there is still one marker on a sidewalk, somewhere in the District.

Maybe I will try to find it someday, and then the places where they were. That would be the ultimate challenge, looking for things that do not exist. But first things first.

I took careful pictures of the Stones to document their condition, the day and the house they guarded. The neighborhoods were on the verge. Some homes well kept and others abandoned. The general tone seemed to be more prosperous as I headed north toward Takoma Park.

I was looking at NE 6, in good shape in a private yard when a large American car of indeterminate age rolled by with the driver talking loudly to himself, or me, or some greater power. I would not linger around NE 6 past the coming of darkness. NE 5 was in front of a modest and hardworking home. Stone 4 was stunning. The owner of the little Cape Cod house behind it had painted the cage and highlighted the inscription in black paint so that the claim to sovereignty was clear and unambiguous. An impressive Stone.

My research said that NE 3 was to be found on the edge of a parking lot on a commercial development. When the odomoter was crawling past .9 miles from NE 4 I saw a strip mall ahead on the right. There were no cars in the lot and the asphalt was littered with trash. The brick building was decorated with vibrant folk art, the colors still bright, but the Hispanic grocery had been closed a while and plastic bags were blowing listlessly around in the fresh breeze. The Stone was in a thicket of scrub-brush near the sidewalk. It was startling to see the damage.

The cage was blown open as though it had been hit by a grenade. The steel rods were twisted like spaghetti, although the Stone beneath the wreckage was remarkably intact. I touched it, the top green with moss and the inscription barely visible. It is the only one that I have felt compelled to feel with my flesh. Just outside the twisted bars of the cage was a nest inside the debris. The cardboard of some old liquor boxes were flattened to soften the ground. It was still dry on top, and it appeared that someone was living there.

They were not at home at the moment, though it seemed clear that they were going to be back.

I poked through the debris with a toe. Empty plastic containers, assorted trash. Some demented man slept here, dreaming in his drunkenness, curled around the Stone. I suppose he shouts out in the night, and maybe that is why he is not here. Maybe arrested, or maybe he has a day place to be, some median where he can panhandle the commuters. You can't blame him for sleeping on the monument, I suppose. This little knot of thicket is here because of the Stone, and the cover of the thicket gives home to someone in odd symbiosis.

Last winter I was chasing the stones of the southeast quadrant. On a SE 7 I found a man doing business, using the grill of he stone to display his wares. I had to approach the thing in a diplomatic manner. He was just doing business where he could, and I explained that I wasn't taking pictures of him, though I would be pleased to do so, but that I was interested in the stone beneath his display. We looked at it together, once he decided I was no threat.

I can imagine medieval Italians doing business on the ruins of Rome since I have been there and dealt with their descendents. I don't suppose the DAR would approve, but it doesn't look like the Committee has been here in a long time. I thought that maybe I could adopt it, come down here on Saturdays and clean it up, like people adopt segments of highways. But I didn't want to stay in this neighborhood any longer than I needed to. I may be a little na´ve sometimes but I am not stupid. SE 8 is in the middle of DC Village, a large housing complex, and when I go to visit it will be soon after dawn when only working people are awake. SE 9 is on the bank of the Potomac near the old ferry, not it's original location. That will be an adventure to find.

I documented the wreckage around NE 3 and pressed on into the Nuclear Free City of Takoma Park. I like the people there. They were not afraid to stand their ground inside the District and pass idiotic ordinances because it is the right thing to do. Eastern Avenue took a jog at .8 on the odometer, but I found the corner of Maple and Carroll and there it was, located proudly off the sidewalk in a new circular cage, the green-tinged stone contrasting with the glossy black paint of the steel around it. First one like that I had seen. I took pictures of NE 2, gratified that this one was in good shape and people seemed to care.

There was a guy smoking in front of the copier shop across the street. He seemed interested in what I was doing and I had lost Eastern Avenue, which seemed to have terminated. He gave me directions, the wrong ones, but it helped out. I told him the Stone was in god shape. He puffed on his Marlboro and said it was one of the only three or four stones left. It was an object of civic pride. He seemed surprised when I told him they were almost all there, more almost all the original forty, in one condition or another. Some truncated, some pristine. But mostly all there just like the original scheme. The light was still new and hard and angular.

"That is good to know" he said. "Maybe I'll go look at some."

"There is one every mile" I said. "You should go look at NE 3. It is quite a contrast."

"Thanks for the tip" he said, and carefully stubbed his butt out on the pavement.

I waved as I drove away in the opposite direction from the one he had told me. I eventually found Eastern again, and with a little over 1.2 miles on the odometer I turned right off Georgia Avenue in front of the Paradise Market. It had once sold BEER and WINE, according to the sign but it was out of business. Another sign told me that it was under reconstruction but there didn't seem to be anything happening in haste. There was a social group of some kind in the parking lot at the end of the building and the members looked at me curiously. Right by the door to the market is a plaque inset in the pavement. The light was harsh and it was half in shadow. Hard to get a decent picture. I would have to come back and get it with the flash. Up close, the words on It told me that once there had been a Stone here, NE 1, and that this marker was to commemorate its presence. I wondered what had happened to it. Scooped up by a backhoe? Used for fill in the foundation? Too big to dump out with the trash, so I imagine it is around someplace.

Certainly it could happen. In fact, I was surprised it had not happened more often. I gave a cheery and non-committal wave to the social club before they came down to ask what I was doing on their bock. I climbed back in the car and motored on. The North Stone is located in the midst of a traffic circle and has no cage. Like the other cardinal Stones, it is taller and more imposing than the mile markers. It stands in front of a large sign welcoming you to the city that lies to the south. It also, in slightly larger letters, indicates that Anthony Williams is the Mayor of the District of Columbia. The North Stone has a slight list, sinking into the soil slightly to the left after two hundred and eleven years.

It is a piece of real history. If you know what it is.

Copyright 2003 Vic Socotra