You might’ve spotted this small obelisk on the Ellipse, as it sits there just opposite the White House on the north end. It was supposed to be something much like the American Meridian: designed to be a measuring point for all of the highways in the United States. Instead? It’s just the measuring point for the highways in the District of Columbia (yeah, I know, what highways?). But why a milestone at all? The system of highways was dependent upon common reference measures in order to handle guidebooks and maps, as well as establishing distances between locations. Thus, if they were measured from a common location, which could be surveyed and plotted appropriately, better travel guides and directions could be created.
The milestone dates back to the post World War I era, when expansion of the highway system was just beginning. In 1919, an advocate for the early highway system, Dr. S. M. Johnson, proposed a single national marker, based on the Roman system, from which all roads would be measured. He wrote to the Army Motor Transportation Corps, “The system of highways radiating from Washington to all the boundaries of the national domain and all parts of the Western hemisphere will do vastly more for national unity and for human unity than even the roads of the Roman Empire.” His letter was successful, and after an act of Congress, a temporary marker was erected before a large convoy of vehicles would take the Lincoln Highway from DC west to San Francisco on July 7th, 1919.
President Harding would dedicate the permanent marker that now rests on the Ellipse in June of 1923. It would be the first of many to follow, including milestones in San Diego (for the Lee Highway), Nashville, and other major cities on the national highway system that existed prior to the Eisenhower Interstate System that we know today. US 1′s milestone is in Key West, Florida. Our milemarker is a short obelisk with a bronze 16 point compass rose, atop it, inscribed with some of the journeys that began from it in 1919 and 1920.
So, our milestone stands proud, just south of the White House, on the site of the Jefferson Pier, on one of the great meridians of Washington. Though its purpose is past, it reminds us that context, and where you measure your roads from, is ever-shifting beneath us. You can read more about the first national truck convoys, or about those involved with the milestone, courtesy of the Department of Transportation.