Many years ago, I met up with a friend in Belgium who took me to the nearby Dreiländerpunkt, where Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany converge, with boundaries lines vaguely resembling the logo for Mercedes-Benz. How appropriately German. The glories of the Schengen Agreement have, since 1995, eliminated the fortified boundaries that straitjacketed these small countries for decades prior. Now, it’s no different than state boundaries in the US, and, at Dreiländerpunkt, a mini-amusement park with hedge labyrinth stretches across a diverting little tri-national patch considerably smaller than a high profile amusement park in the US. The closest big city to this park is Aachen, Germany (pop. 250,000) just a few miles away. Alas, I failed to capture the exact stone marker that shows this convergence, but suffice it to say it looks a bit like this:
Stone monoliths serving as landmarks. (For those seeking a better understanding of the appearance of this park, I’ve cheated with this website.) The landmarks in the photo above stand entirely in the Netherlands, and a translation of the Dutch placard indicates that this is the highest point in the entire country. Not that that’s a bold claim—the Netherlands is the flattest and lowest nation in all of Europe, and it’s really only a coincidence of those contrived political boundaries that this happens to be the country’s highest point. If the boundaries shifted 50 meters away, the highest point might have been there.
Like the previous pic, this one also places me exclusively in the Netherlands portion. Drielandenpunt is the Dutch equivalent for Dreiländerpunkt, the German preferred in Germany and Belgium. (It a little-known fact that the far-east sliver of land in Belgium speaks German—not French or Dutch—part of a concession Germany made to relinquish land after invading its neighbor during World War II.) My recollection of this park was that, out of the three nations, the Dutch seem to celebrate it the most. It’s not a mountain (at least by Alpine standards)—really mostly just the side of a hlll or a ridge line, but it’s significant to the Dutch because it’s a superlative for them. Een hoogste punt! Do I even need to translate?
(As a side observation, I’ll wager that the three Germanic languages closest to English are Dutch, Frisian, and Afrikaans. All three are close enough that an American can make vague sense of certain peremptory signs without needing to dig into a translation book or app. Certainly Dutch more closely resembles English than more proximal languages like Irish or Welsh. Or German.)
But all this is a digression. The real subject of interest is that quirky little point (Punt) of three (Drie) lands (Landen) and the interest it affords an otherwise geographic and historically unassuming area, made significant because of invisible, contrived political lines. Cross the pond and we have something similar stateside. Probably the best known example is out West, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet—a perfect four-square intersection, and one of the few examples where a political boundary is a significant tourist attraction in its own right. The Four Corners Monument isn’t a heavily commercialized recreation area like the Dreiländerpunkt or Drielandenpunt, but the monument is enough of an attraction to impel small businesses to locate nearby: restaurants, jewelry/clothing vendors, most of it with a Navajo flair, which is no surprise, since it’s also the boundary of the semi-autonomous Navajo Nation, which maintains the monument and stretches across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Meanwhile, the Ute Mountain Reservation claims the land on the Colorado portion.
Alas, I digress again. I have never been to Four Corners Monument, so I have no reason to speak extensively on it, except for its relevance toward an obscure but distinctive spot where multiple political boundaries all come together, this time a lot closer to home (for me at least).
These monoliths, similar in form to the ones marking the highest point in Netherlands (but shorter and fatter than the Dutch–much like Americans themselves), stand at Jones Point in Virginia, a strange cape where the Potomac River tapers as it flows northwestward, going from enormously wide to slightly less enormously wide. Here’s an map where Jones Point sticks out like a south-pointing knob on the left (Virginia) side of the river.
Jones Point is about seven miles south from the US Capitol in the heart of Washington DC. And it has placards that reflect it as a historic boundary between Virginia, District of Columbia and Maryland.
It’s important to emphasize the word “historic”. These boundaries no longer apply, but they reflect the little-known former southern point of District of Columbia, back when it was a perfect 100-mile square (10 by 10) pivoted so that its corners were due north, south, east, and west like a compass, as seen in this 1835 map, courtesy of BJR Rare Maps.
What’s that—an old map where Washington DC stretches on both sides of the mighty river? The District of Columbia, at the time of these stone markers, abided by its original boundaries, carved out of both Maryland and Virginia. But those conditions did not last, and a Congressional decision in 1847 determined it best to retrocede the south side of the Potomac River (approximately 30 square miles) back to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, most of these former District lands comprise tiny, urbanized, affluent Arlington County, Virginia. And the remainder form a part of the City of Alexandria, which predated the plans for the Federal City initiated under George Washington’s presidential terms, with the help of planning visionary Pierre l’Enfant. With the stroke of a Congressional pen, DC shrunk from 100 to 61 square miles in 1847, with all residual lands on the northern (Maryland) side of the Potomac. The exact reasoning for the retrocession is likely to differ depending on who one talks to, at least among those who know about it (and most people who grew up in the DC area are aware). Suffice it to say, the Virginia side of the District still had seen little development by the 1830s, dominated by woods and plantations. Lacking any bridges, it was isolated and cumbersome to govern, which no doubt helped prompt the Congressional decision, among many other reasons that could spawn a book of its own. (This is simply an article and I intend to keep it that way.)
I’ve written about this retrocession in the past, but only as a footnote, because (contentious though it was 180 years ago) in the 21st century, a footnote is all it is. The retrocession is so tucked away in antebellum annals that most Americans (outside of history buffs) don’t know that DC ever took a big bite out of Virginia. But it did. And it all converged here at Jones Point.
Picturesque though it may be, Jones Point is about as obscure as the retrocession itself, even among Alexandria parks. But the Jones Point Light (dating from 1855) sits squarely at the cape, under stewardship of the National Park Service and, surprisingly, not open to tours. It stands more as an artifact, enduing Jones Point with structural history to supplement the political boundary markers, which sit under shadow of the lighthouse much of the day.
The monoliths articulate the points that comprise the right angle where the old pre-1847 boundary of District of Columbia cut a wedge into the riverine boundary of Virginia and Maryland. Each one says “HISTORIC” and “DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA”. To the uninformed, it’s a bizarre sight, since there’s nothing indicating that Jones Point ever would have hosted any part of the District of Columbia boundary. And they don’t…today. But that boundary line sliced through Jones Point in the era prior to the retrocession.
The edited map below is my best attempt to show exactly how this played out.
The pink stars are my best guess at where these monoliths stand, all flanking the Jones Point Light. Each one represents a point where the old historic District of Columbia boundary cut into the Commonwealth of Virginia, a V shape indicated by the pink dashed line. Meanwhile, the solid line reflects the current southern tip of the District of Columbia, after the retrocession ceded the one side of the Potomac River back to Virginia.
Look past my pink chicken scratches and there’s one other monolith indicator at Jones Point of a boundary marker, this one stating “District of Columbia Boundary Stone” and embedded within Google Maps itself. It’s a few hundred feet away from the others on the dirt path.
With trees denuded by winter, it’s much easier to spot the powerful bridge spinning the Potomac in the background—exactly the sort of bridge that helped economically link the Virginia side of this huge river with the Maryland side. (And constructed long after the retrocession, of course.) It’s none other than the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which I featured in an article last year, looking out at this same attenuation in the river, but from the Maryland side. In that article, I drew colored boundary lines to show how the bridge cut through first the Maryland/District boundary, and then, just a hundred feet later, the District/Virginia boundary. But that delineation was in light of the current (post-retrocession) boundaries. Even then, in late 2021, I knew nothing about the secrets of Jones Point and the boundary stones from historic District of Columbia, circa 1845. Jones Point Park largely sits in the shadow of this enormous structural engineering marvel, obscuring the place literally. It would probably be a more popular park if so much of it weren’t covered in shadows, though it’s probably the coolest place in Alexandria in the summertime.
In the grand scheme of things, Jones Point doesn’t enjoy near the high profile of Four Corners Monument, or even the Drielandenpunt in Europe, despite the fact that over six million people live in what the locals call “the DMV” (District Maryland Virginia). It begs the question of how to afford public interest in political boundaries, which are nothing more than legally enshrined territory, often lacking any physical, sociological, geological, or biological distinction. (Out West, the geography of that mythic four-state intersection is pure coincidence.) Despite the fact that most political and jurisdictional boundaries lack anything of note, people still seem fascinated by them. Countless Americans will pull their car off the road, jump out and take a photo when they see the welcome sign to a new state they have never visited. And kids aged six and sixty love stretching themselves across boundary convergences for the novelty of it. (“Hey look! I’m in three countries at once.”)
Jones Point is prettier than 90% of political boundaries out there, yet the South Boundary Stone of historic Washington DC earns most of its clout through the aptly named Atlas Obscura. What could bring more people to this idiosyncratic means of revealing old antebellum boundaries and the fraught history that prompted the Congressional act of retrocession? Is there any possibility of turning Jones Point into a “Federal City Museum” and using the Jones Point Light to host displays with historic depictions of how the great, forgotten retrocession came to be? If National Park Service can commission a quirky sculptural landmark that allows people to stretch their bodies across the District (pre 1847), Virginia, and Maryland for the sake of a good selfie, I’m sure they could turn Jones Point into a household term. But first we have to teach them what the heck a retrocession is.