The Zero Milestone.
The Zero Milestone.

The Zero Milestone

Field review by the editors.

Washington, DC

Most people don't realize the significance of the Zero Milestone, and just use it to prop up their smartphones while taking selfies in front of the White House. It's an inscribed granite block, set inside a big brass compass on the sidewalk, about four feet high. It was paid for not by the U.S. government, but by the National Highway Marking Association, a lobbying group that wanted taxpayer money to pay for more road signs.

The spot was chosen because it was, as inscribed in the monument's side, the "Starting point of the first transcontinental motor convoy over the Lincoln Highway. 7 July 1919." The convoy was the brainstorm of the U.S. Army, which wanted to find out how long it would take military vehicles to drive cross-country in case America was attacked. The answer was alarming. The Army trucks, cars, motorcycles, and even one tank, endured a road trip from hell, with the convoy damaging or destroying 88 bridges and causing 230 accidents before it arrived in San Francisco in September. The awful state of America's roads was a scandal. One of the junior officers on the trek, Dwight Eisenhower, later became U.S. President, and it was partly his memory of the calamitous 1919 road trip that inspired his 1956 creation of America's Interstate Highway System.

1923 - Warren Harding Unveils The Zero Milestone.
1923 - Warren Harding Unveils The Zero Milestone.

But the Zero Milestone isn't just a monument to the convoy. It apes the "Golden Milestone" of ancient Rome, and was expected to be the spot from which all road distances in the U.S. would be measured. This was almost as bad an idea as driving a tank cross-country in 1919. People in places like Oregon and California hated the thought that their road markers would begin and end in the 3,000s. States began erecting their own Zero Milestones. With the threat of competing distances on the same highway mileposts, the idea was quietly dropped.

President Warren Harding dedicated the Zero Milestone on June 4, 1923, one of his last official acts in Washington before setting out on his own cross-country trip. He died less than two months later. Like the convoy, he ended up in San Francisco, at the end of another bad trip from the Zero Milestone.

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The Zero Milestone

Address:
E St. NW, Washington, DC
Directions:
On the north edge of The Ellipse, where it meets E Street NW. Just west of the National Christmas Tree, and just south of the White House.
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In the region:
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July 17, 2019

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