Though the saying is “All roads lead to Rome,” if Washington D.C. architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant had his way, all roads would lead to the nation’s capital.
L’Enfant wanted a column called “the Washington Meridian” erected a mile east of the U.S. Capitol. This column would mark where “all distances of places through the Continent, are to be calculated.”
It didn’t happen. But in 1804, Jefferson did establish the Second Washington Prime Meridian and aligned it precisely with the White House. The Jefferson Pier, located on the National Mall south of the White House, marks that effort. The Washington Monument was intended to be placed along that line as well, but ill-suited ground caused developers to move the memorial southeast.
Another marker was to be added to the line in 1919. This was when Dr. S.M. Johnson wrote to the U.S. Army’s Motor Transportation Corps with visions of Rome dancing in his head:
“It seems to me the time has come when the Government should designate a point at which the road system of the United States takes its beginning, and that the spot should be marked by an initial milestone, from which all road distances in the United States and throughout the Western hemisphere should be reckoned. Rome marked the beginning of her system of highways which bound her widely scattered people together by a golden milestone in the Forum. 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.”
Secretary of War Newton Baker thought Dr. Johnson had a good point, and the Zero Milestone was added to the growing number of monuments located on the Second Washington Meridian (that's Warren Harding dedicating it in the picture). A convoy of Army vehicles left from the spot on July 7, 1919, driving from Zero up to Gettysburg, then taking the Lincoln Highway all the way across the United States to California. Interestingly, the convoy included Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had decided to join the trip “as a lark.” The poor road conditions he came across along the way partially inspired the Interstate System he later championed as President.
A second convoy left from the spot the following year, and sadly, that seems to be the last time anyone took much notice of the Zero Milestone marker. You’ve probably noticed that all roads in the U.S. aren’t measured from it, let alone all roads on the continent, as L’Enfant originally planned, but that doesn't stop us from proclaiming it loud and proud on the monument. Engraved in the granite on the south side is this inscription:
“POINT FOR THE MEASUREMENT OF DISTANCES FROM WASHING- TON ON HIGH WAYS OF THE UNITED STATES”
The east side says: “STARTING POINT OF SECOND TRANSCONTINENTAL MOTOR CONVOY OVER THE BANKHEAD HIGHWAY, JUNE 14, 1920”
The west side: “STARTING POINT OF FIRST TRANSCONTINENTAL MOTOR CONVOY OVER THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY, JULY 7, 1919”
And the north face simply says “Zero milestone.”