Boundary Stones and Capital Magic

[Image: “Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Washington D.C. is surrounded by a diamond of “boundary stones,” Tim St. Onge writes for the Library of Congress blog, Worlds Revealed.

“The oldest set of federally placed monuments in the United States are strewn along busy streets, hidden in dense forests, lying unassumingly in residential front yards and church parking lots,” he explains. “Many are fortified by small iron fences, and one resides in the sea wall of a Potomac River lighthouse. Lining the current and former boundaries of Washington, D.C., these are the boundary stones of our nation’s capital.”

[Image: “District of Columbia boundary stone,” U.S. Library of Congress].

Nearly all of them—36 out of 40—can still be found today, although they are not necessarily easy to identify. “Some stones legibly maintain their original inscriptions marking the ‘Jurisdiction of the United States,’ while others have been severely eroded or sunk into the ground so as to now resemble ordinary, naturally-occurring stones.” They have been hit by cars and obscured by poison ivy.

The question of who owns the stones—and thus has responsibility for preserving them—is complex, as the Washington Post pointed out back in 2014. “Those that sit on the D.C./Maryland line were deemed the property of the D.C. Department of Transportation. ‘But on the Virginia side, if you own the land, you own the stone,’ [Stephen Powers of boundarystones.org] says.”

[Image: Mapping the stones, via boundarystones.org].

Novelist Jeremy Bushnell joked on Twitter that, “if anyone knows the incantations that correctly activate these, now would be a good time to utter them,” and, indeed, there is something vaguely magical—in a Nicolas Cage sort of way—in this vision of the nation’s capital encaged by a protective geometry of aging obelisks. Whether “activating” them would have beneficial or nefarious ends, I suppose, is something that remains to be seen.

Of course, Boston also has its boundary stones, and the “original city limits” of Los Angeles apparently have a somewhat anticlimactic little marker that you can find driven into the concrete, as well.

Read much, much more over at Worlds Revealed and boundarystones.org.

(Related: Working the Line. Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the tip!)

Working the Line

Tomorrow night in Los Angeles, at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, David Taylor will be presenting his project “Working the Line.”

[Image: U.S./Mexico border marker #184; photograph by David Taylor].

Taylor has been documenting “276 obelisks, installed between the years 1892 and 1895, that mark the U.S./Mexico boundary from El Paso/Juarez to San Diego/Tijuana. He will present this work, and describe his experiences along this often remote and dramatic linear and liminal space.”

As geographer Michael Dear—who spoke about border issues back at Postopolis! LA—describes these obelisks:

The monuments erected by the boundary survey played a pivotal role in securing the line after the Mexican-American War. These obelisks and stone mounds literally marked on the ground the southernmost edges of the nation; they became fundamental points of reference in subsequent boundary disputes (of which there were many) and in the resurvey of the border that took place at the end of the 19th century.

In the context of Taylor’s project, it’s interesting to read a 2006 discussion about “GeoCaching the Mexican Border Obelisk Monuments,” in which a project nearly identical to Taylor’s was presented as “extreme & dangerous,” and thus all but impossible to achieve. Rhetorically speaking, I also want to point out CLUI’s use of the terms “remote and dramatic” to describe what the geocaching site sees as “extreme & dangerous”—an intriguing insight into the spirit of the two approaches. In any case, the ensuing conversation there includes fascinating technical details of the obelisks themselves—their materiality and scale—as well as precise coordinate locations for several dozen of them.

The talk kicks off at 7pm, on Wednesday, August 4, at CLUI’s gallery space in Culver City; here’s a map.

(Random book link: Obelisk: A History).