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Volunteers Work To Save D.C.'s Oldest Monuments

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Stephen Powers, acting co-chairman of NACABOSTCO, scrapes off old paint on the fence surrounding Boundary Stone SW#4.
Rebecca Sheir
Stephen Powers, acting co-chairman of NACABOSTCO, scrapes off old paint on the fence surrounding Boundary Stone SW#4.

If you've ever looked at a map of D.C., you've probably noticed that the boundaries of our nation's capital form a diamond. These days, that diamond is technically missing a corner: the piece of land that Congress handed back to Virginia in the 1840s.

But that diamond was whole back in 1791, when it was created by a surveying team led by Maj. Andrew Ellicott, and along that diamond's borders, Maj. Ellicott's team placed 40 stones, all made of sandstone from the Aquia Creek quarry. The boundary stones, as we now know them, are the oldest monuments in D.C., and the first ever purchased by the federal government.

But after more than 200 years, the boundary stones—and the iron fences put up in the 1900s to help protect the stones—have seen better days, which is why a group of volunteers has visited the stones every May and October to do preservation work.

This past weekend, they gathered in northern Virginia to scrape off the fences' crumbling paint, so it can be replaced with a rich hunter-green shade. Their ringleader, a man named Stephen Powers, grew up in the D.C. area, and a handful of years ago, he decided to take his children to visit all 40 stones.

"As I started taking them to the stones, I got what I call 'stones fever,'" Powers recalls. "And I took over 3,500 photos of the stones, and did condition studies of them."

Since then, he's become acting co-chair of NACABOSTCO: the Nation's Capital boundary stones Committee. NACABOSTCO includes more than two dozen groups, from historical societies and local governments, to organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers - National Capital Section, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, who first put up the fences.

The goal of NACABOSTCO is to unite the boundary stones under one owner: the federal government. Currently, the stones on the Maryland-D.C., border fall under the auspices of the District Department of Transportation, which has said it doesn't have funding for restoration or preservation.

And in Virginia, Powers says, "When the government retroceded the lands, [it] also retroceded the stones. So the Virginia stones are all owned by that landowner, many of them are in private yards. One of them is in a church parking lot. And the owner of that land actually owns those stones."

Right now, NACABOSTCO is working on an application to submit the stones for National Historic Landmark status.

"That would create federal funding and an ownership," says Powers. "And these stones would no longer be orphaned and forgotten, and would lead to them surviving for future generations to enjoy."

Because in a way, it's kind of shocking this generation has been able to enjoy the stones, or the ones that remain, anyhow. Originally, there were four corner stones, and nine stones on each 10-mile leg, making for 40 sites and stones.

But four of those sites no longer have their original stones. Instead, one has a plaque, two feature replicas, and the final stone acts as storage.

"We're hoping to get that one back into the ground," says Powers. "So 37 of the original stones actually still exist."

And boy, have those stones been through a lot! Powers says some were used for target practice during the Civil War. SW #4 was repeatedly struck by farm plows. And on a traffic median on Jefferson Street, just south of Columbia Pike, SW #6 was hit by a car in 1966.

"That's why it's broken in half," Powers explains. "We'd like to see this median actually widened, maybe put some more protective bollards or something around it so that another accident wouldn't happen in the future."

That would, of course, require some major engineering. So Powers says it's a good thing the American Society of Civil Engineers - National Capital Section is on board. The organization hopes to designate the boundary stones an ASCE Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. It also hopes to design and raise funds for a public park at the East Corner Stone. The West Corner Stone, south of West Street in Falls Church, already has a park, named for Maj. Andrew Ellicott.

Otherwise, Powers says, the boundary stones are largely forgotten. People either pass right by without noticing. Or, if they do notice, Powers says, "[they] will come up to us and say, 'Is that a gravestone? What is that?' When we tell them what it is, they get very excited by it."

And the hope, he says, is that the federal government will get excited, too. And maybe even come down with a case of "stones fever" itself.

[Music: "I Walk The Line" by The Dave Clark Five from Instrumental Diamonds, Vol. 3 - Out of This World]

Photos: Boundary Stones

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