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  • Writer's pictureDale Hill

The Missing Milestone Monument

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

Another Saturday, another SMASH. The day started out simple enough, not unlike many of my Survey Mark Scavenger Hunting adventures I selected my primary target for the day (DC1719: the San Diego Zero Milestone 1923), identified a few new marks that I would look for on my way there, then planned to finish up with a handful of recoveries that were in the Embarcadero, not too far from where the Zero Milestone was located. When I arrived at Horton Plaza, I found a traffic stanchion in the place where the monument should have been.

Now you see it, now you don't. Historical Marker removed on June 12, 2020 for its connection to Gen. Robert E. Lee

Clearly, the monument had been removed, so from a technical perspective, it would be considered lost or destroyed. But this just seemed "off" to me, there was an obvious place for the monument as evidenced by the 2-foot square of asphalt in the middle of the tiled plaza. When searching for typical 3" brass disc markers, it's not uncommon to find them missing, the victims of someone wanting a souvenir, but a 2-foot square by 5-foot tall marble block in the center of downtown San Diego? This was not something that could just be pried loose and made off with easily. There had to be a story.

One of my favorite aspects of recovering survey marks is digging into the background and history of the mark, the location where it is set, and other related circumstances that may shed light on its purpose. Even the most nondescript, mundane survey control points have a purpose. This one was neither nondescript nor mundane, it commemorated a significant accomplishment in transportation history, a southern transcontinental automobile route. As I researched the history of this particular marker (and the monument that it is mounted on), I was drawn down a couple of internet rabbit holes, the first was focused on the development and history of the Country's early highway system, the second was the circumstances surrounding its removal.

The transcontinental automobile route memorialized by the monument was originally named after General Robert E. Lee, who was an American Confederate general best known as a commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. It was this link to General Lee that was the catalyst to have this monument removed.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported: "In light of today’s national “Black Lives Matter” outcry and a push to free our public spaces of tributes to Lee and others with links to slavery, the San Diego Department of Parks & Recreation quietly carted away the commemorative highway milestone on June 12 [2020]."

As I learned, the removal of this particular monument is part of a larger movement that began in the 1960s to remove monuments and memorials on public property dedicated to the Confederate States of America. While not a new phenomenon, the momentum to remove Confederate memorials has increased dramatically following high-profile incidents based on race and ethnicity over the last several years. Admittedly, I was a little puzzled by this one as it is clearly not a statue of Lee, and with the exception of the Lee Highway Association logo on the monument, there is no mention of Lee on the monument. Unrelated to any reference to Lee or the Confederacy, the California portion of the roadway had long since been renamed/renumbered. (U.S. 80 freeway is officially renamed Interstate 8 during the Great Renumbering of 1964.)


General Robert E. Lee's Parole and Citizenship

On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, where he, and six of his officers, were paroled. On May 29, 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon to persons who had participated in the rebellion against the United States. There were fourteen excepted classes, though, and members of those classes had to make a special application to the President, Lee was among the fourteen who were not granted amnesty or pardon.

On June 13, 1865, Lee submitted a letter to President Johnson applying for amnesty and pardon. On October 2, 1865, the same day that Lee was inaugurated as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, he signed his Amnesty Oath, thereby complying fully with the provision of Johnson's proclamation. But Lee was not pardoned, nor was his citizenship restored during his lifetime.

His signed Amnesty Oath was discovered in the National Archives in 1970. In 1975, Lee's full rights of citizenship were posthumously restored by a joint congressional resolution effective June 13, 1865.

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, formerly named the Custis-Lee Mansion, located in Arlington, Virginia, United States, was once the home of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee. Quartermaster General of the United States Army Montgomery C. Meigs proposed using 200 acres of the Arlington estate as a cemetery and on June 15, 1864, United States Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton approved the establishment of a military cemetery creating Arlington National Cemetery.

Meigs believed that since Lee had committed treason in deciding to fight against the Union, denying him the use of the mansion after the war was a rough form of justice. Meigs directed that a large number of burials should occur close to Arlington House to render it unlivable.


Historically Speaking, What is the Zero Milestone?

The Pacific Milestone

In the National Geodetic Survey's (NGS) official database, it is designated as SAN DIEGO ZERO MILESTONE 1923 with the assigned permanent ID DC1719. The monument is a 2-foot square, 5-foot tall, block of San Diego marble. A large brass compass rose mounted on top of the marble monument is pre-cast with the following: The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Latitude 32 Deg 42 Min 56.039 Sec, Longitude 117 Deg 09 Min 32.15 Sec, 54.119 Ft Above Sea Level. The actual geodetic survey control point is at the center of a small triangle in the center of the disc.

Note: The following photographs of the Zero Milestone Monument were found online and posted by individual contributors on the and websites. These are not my photographs, I cropped, edited, and organized them for this presentation.

As a survey marker, it marks a known position of latitude, longitude, and elevation above sea level. Once moved from its original location it can no longer be used as a reliable survey control point and considered destroyed. There are procedures to reset control marks that are disturbed through construction activities or other situations, but it takes work and it must be re-surveyed.

As a historical marker, the marble monument commemorated the completion of the Lee Highway, each was represented individually on the different faces of the monument:

  • President Coolidge. North Face. President Coolidge prepared comments that were read by Col Fletcher at the dedication. At the touch of a button in Washington by the President, a gong rang in the San Diego Plaza that signaled the unveiling of the monument.

  • The Old Spanish Trail. South Face. It was the western terminus of the Old Spanish Trail extending from St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego, California.

  • Pacific Milestone. East Face. It was the western terminus of the southern transcontinental roadway linking Washington DC and California (its companion marker at the eastern Point of Origin still stands.) Note that the Lee Highway Association emblem is on this side of the monument.

  • Col. Ed Fletcher. West Face. It recognized the involvement and tireless efforts of Col. Ed Fletcher, Vice President of the Lee Highway Association and outspoken booster for highway development, particularly for roads to connect San Diego with the east. (local San Diegans should follow the above link to Col Fletcher's bio to read more about his accomplishments, I found it quite informative)

When it was removed it was placed in storage by the City. however, the fate of the monument is currently unknown, there is speculation that it could ultimately end up in the San Diego History Center but who knows?

All Roads Lead to Rome

The Milliarium Aureum, also known by the translation "Golden Milestone", was a monument, probably of marble or gilded bronze, erected by Emperor Caesar Augustus near the Temple of Saturn in the central Forum of Ancient Rome. It was erected in 20 BCE and supposedly received the name Milliarium Aureum soon after its inauguration. It symbolized the starting point of the Roman road system to the rest of Italy and to all the imperial possessions, hence the phrase "All roads lead to Rome".

Internationally, Kilometre Zero (the Zero Milestone) is generally located in the capital of the country, and all roads are measured from that point. In the United States, most mile markers start at either the western or southern terminus of their respective road, and the mileage increase as they go east or north. To the best of my knowledge, there are only a handful of Zero Milestone markers in the United States, all on the Lee Highway, the most popular being the one in Washington DC.

Where it all began in the United States

The Zero Milestone is a zero-mile marker monument in Washington, D.C. intended as the initial milestone from which all road distances in the United States should be measured when it was built. At present, only roads in the Washington, D.C. area have distances measured from it. The monument stands just south of the White House at the north edge of The Ellipse, within President's Park. Atop the monument is a bronze 16-point compass rose with a very small worn-down pyramid at its center whose top serves as a National Geodetic Survey benchmark (HV1847). [Wikipedia, accessed July 11, 2021]

The Zero Milestone in Washington was the starting point for two military transcontinental motor convoys. The convoys were a test to see how fast the U.S. Army could move across the United States in an emergency, the first started on the Lincoln Highway in 1919 on one of the earliest transcontinental routes (considered the northern route) that went from New York to San Francisco and spanned 13 states. (Interesting factoid: one participant on that first military convoy was Lt. Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower. Later, as President, Eisenhower would champion and signed the bill that authorized the Interstate Highway System in 1956. He justified the project through the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 as essential to American security during the Cold War.) The second convoy started a year later on the Bankhead Highway, conceived in 1916, and traversed the country from Washington DC to San Diego, CA deemed the southern route.

Other Zero Milestone monuments in the US include Roanoke, VA; Memphis, TN; Rogersville, Hawkins County, TN; and San Diego, CA. At one time Zero Milestone markers were more common and they helped early motorists calculate their distance to points of interest in guide books.

It's All In The Name

The system of auto trails was an informal network of marked routes that existed in the United States and Canada in the early part of the 20th century. Marked with colored bands on utility poles, the trails were intended to help travelers in the early days of the automobile. In the mid-to-late 1920s, the auto trails were essentially replaced with the United States Numbered Highway System.

The Southern National Highway ...

In 1915, leaders of the Southern National Highway in California made the first official trip over the highway from San Diego to Washington. Financed by the Cabrillo Commercial Club, the motorists included Colonel Ed Fletcher, a leading San Diego booster; William Gross, an associate of Colonel Fletcher's; Wilbur Hall, a magazine writer; and Mr. B. H. Burrell of the OPR (Office of Public Roads).

Became "Broadway of America" ...

The group reached Washington on November 27 after a 3,247-mile journey. The OPR's Burrell reported that the Southern National Highway is "a feasible highway, which could be traveled at the present time without undue hardship or difficulty." Nevertheless, the Southern National Highway and the association formed to back it failed. The route would become the Broadway of America, with Colonel Fletcher as vice president of the Broadway of America Highway Association. It, too, would never become a major, nationally known highway.

Which ultimately became the Lee Highway

The full Lee Highway was conceived by Presbyterian minister, Dr. S.M. Johnson in the early 1900s. When he pitched his idea to the AAA, they informed him there was already a plan for a memorial highway dedicated to General Lee, an effort led by Professor D. W. Humphreys, a professor of engineering at Washington and Lee University at Lexington, Virginia. Humphreys' route wasn't quite as ambitious as Johnson's and only planned to link Gettysburg, PA to Chattanooga, TN. Dr. Johnson's plan was to follow that route to connect with the original Southern National Highway Route in Memphis and continue westward toward San Diego.

Dr. Johnson, Professor Humphreys, and others met in Roanoke, Virginia, to discuss the proposed memorial highway. On December 3, 1919, the Lee Highway Association was officially formed with Dr. Johnson taking point as the General Director. The Lee Highway route would change slightly based on the suitability of the terrain and connections with existing auto trails over the next couple of years, but would ultimately connect New York City to San Francisco, California. It was one of several national auto trails that would pass through (or terminate) in San Diego. As noted above, Col Ed Fletcher would go on to become the Vice President of the Lee Highway Association and was an ardent supporter of the developing National Highway system.

Ironically, the very name recognition that pushed the Lee Highway forward, would 97 years later, be the connection that would result in a historical marker being unceremoniously removed and stored in a warehouse. Had Colonel Fletcher or Dr. Johnson been successful in naming the route the Southern National Trail, Broadway of America, or merging it with Old Spanish Trail (and taking that name), the marble monument (and survey mark) would still be in its place accurately marking its physical location and commemorating the completion of a transcontinental roadway, of little interest to many except land surveyors, local historians, and highway aficionados.

Presidential Perspective

The Lee Highway was named during the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, and it was perhaps the first time in history a losing general has been so honored by his victors. However, President Wilson observed: “It is one of the happy circumstances of our national life that the bitterness of the Civil War has disappeared and that General Lee is now recognized as a man worthy of the admiration of the whole nation.” In this spirit of reconciliation, Lee Highway was envisioned as a road that would transcend “section strife, binding North, South, East, and West in the bond of an indissoluble Union.”

President Harding died in office just months prior to the completion of the highway, his successor, President Calvin Coolidge sent the following message to Col Fletcher to read at the dedication ceremony:

“It is a pleasure to comply with the request of your Lee Highway association and the city of San Diego to send a message for the dedication of the Pacific milestone. President Harding was to have dedicated the Pacific milestone and had planned to make an address at San Diego on this subject of highways. Perhaps, then, I may appropriately recall something of what he said in dedicating the Zero Milestone in Washington on June 4, last. Referring to the highway system, which at all times have served to unify society and promote civilization, he spoke of our national highway system of 200,000 miles of modern improved roads, together with more than 2,000,000 miles of rural highways, which yet remain to be improved as rapidly as economic conditions shall justify.

“President Harding emphasized the necessity to utilize every form of transportation to the utmost practicable extent and commended the various associations which have fostered the good roads movement. Particularly, he thanked the Lee Highway Association for erecting the Zero Milestone, the Pacific Milestone, and others that have been made official Bench Marks of the United States coast and geodetic survey. Just as the zero milestone marks the point of the initiation of this splendid transcontinental highway, so the Pacific milestone marks the place of its contact with the Pacific. The southern transcontinental highway is already, in a large part, finished. A relatively small mileage remains to be brought up to the best present-day standards, but I am informed that most of these sections are included in the system of federal-aid roads and that in a near future the necessary links will have been forged. When they are finished, this highway will stand as one of the continuous transcontinental routes available at all seasons of the year for easy transportation. In accepting this monument, it is fitting to express thanks to the citizens of San Diego, the Imperial Valley, of Yuma, Ariz., and the state of California for their particular contributions. The Lee highway association has done a work of national unification in opening up this route between the national capital and southern California. The monument may well be dedicated to the purpose of marking the meeting place of the splendid highway with the waters of the Pacific, in the hope that it may hasten the coming day of a perfected system of highway communication throughout the entire nation.”



DC1719: the San Diego Zero Milestone 1923

I hope to be able to arrange an appointment to view and photograph the original survey mark to properly complete my recovery and perhaps the monument will ultimately end up in a museum. I have reached out to the Park Service who removed the monument and they have directed me to the San Diego History Center (who originally directed me to the Park Service). My personal opinion is that my requests to see the monument will be ignored as no one wants to deal with it.

The Lee Highway

There are some sections of the Lee Highway in Fairfax City and Warrenton Virginia that still bear the original name, however, the majority of it has been renamed and renumbered as it makes its way from Washington DC to San Francisco, California. The sections that traverse Southern California are known today as Interstate 8 (Arizona border to San Diego), Interstate 5 (San Diego to Los Angeles), and US Route 101 (Los Angeles to San Francisco).

As far as these California sections go, this renumbering was unrelated to any reference to Lee but was prompted by the introduction of the Interstate Highway network in the 1960s. The Legislative and State Route numbering systems in place at the time couldn't keep pace with the complexity of the developing roadway network throughout the state and was duplicative and very confusing.

Final thoughts

Apparently, the marble monument marking the point where the Lee Highway met the Pacific was contentious enough to be removed based on its connection to Lee, yet the very highway that bore his name was okay and exists today as an essential artery for commerce and leisure travel. In today's terminology, the monument was simply "low hanging fruit".

Of course, time does not heal all wounds, and while President Wilson's comments about the unifying effect of the transcontinental roadway were no doubt sincere at the time, they seem out of touch with the realities of today. History is what it is and we can't change what has occurred. We can (and should) learn from the events of the past, striving to understand and applying that knowledge to make better choices going forward. Attempts to 'erase' history are just as devious and divisive as manipulating the presentation of facts to favor a particular viewpoint, it reminds me of a quote attributed to Winston Churchhill, "History is written by the victors". Can the victors be fair, equitable, and objective? How will our actions today be viewed in 100 years? Only time will tell.

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