More on the mysterious concrete markers in Virginia


A stone survey marker in McLean. Robert Callaway started spotting the markers all over Fairfax County, which mark the right of way for Dulles access and toll roads. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist August 17, 2013

When last we encountered Robert Callaway, he was by the side of a road in Fairfax County attempting to make sense of concrete markers emblazoned on top with an X and the letters “US.” Robert had found 28 of the markers and was curious what they marked and whether they were still in use.

After Answer Man’s July 28 column on the mysterious markers, several readers stepped forward to shed more light.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Tom VanPoole, a Virginia Department of Transportation land use engineer, confirmed that the markers show the right of way for the Dulles Access and Toll roads. He forwarded plan sheets from when VDOT built a ramp from Dolley Madison Boulevard onto the Dulles Access Road.

The plans Tom sent are packed with information, delineating all manner of features. Amid the nearly inscrutable jumble of lines, circles, dashes, arrows and symbols are tiny squares pinpointing some of the markers Robert had stumbled upon. They are labeled “U.S. Conc. Mon. Fnd.” (it means “U.S. Concrete Monument Found”) and include numbers that locate the markers in relation to the planned airport highway.

Wrote Tom: “One would expect to find the monuments at the corners wherever a primary highway (number under 599) crosses another highway, at the beginning and end of curves, and where the right of way line changes direction (for instance, where the right of way is wider than normal to include a cut or fill slope).”


Robert Callaway poses with a stone survey marker he found in McLean. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Reader Jack Burrows of Harrisonburg, Va., had some thoughts on why it’s been difficult for Robert to find information on the markers. For much of his 33-year career with the General Services Administration, Jack worked on disposing of unneeded parcels of federally owned land. He noted that all land owned by the government is titled in the name of the United States of America, regardless of which agency is using the plot.

“This can make it difficult to identify an agency responsible for any given piece of property,” he wrote. Property can be transferred among agencies as needs and responsibilities change. Also, the Dulles roads are unusual because they are actually on land held by the FAA. (While it oversees small parcels for things like radar installations, it’s rare for the FAA to hold large chunks of land. Dulles International and Reagan National are the only airports the feds own. Both are leased to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.)

Finally, most of the land that was used to make the road was taken through condemnation, a process that often does not result in a deed. Instead, something called a “declaration of taking” is created. This document can bundle together multiple parcels, meaning there isn’t always a simple list of who owns what, where.

“Basically, it requires a fair amount of detective work,” Jack said.

Robert continues to hunt down markers. “I’ll probably find more in the fall and early winter when the foliage dies down,” he told Answer Man.

With the help of the map and reports from other readers, Robert is now up to 31 markers. Well, 31 1 / 2. The map directed him to a place where he found not a marker, but a square hole in the ground. Someone had removed the 4-foot concrete shaft.

That sort of thing drives surveyors mad. They want their markers to remain inviolate. As it says in Deuteronomy: “Cursed be he that removeth his neighbor’s landmark.”

What’s in a name?

Surveyors want their markers to be permanent. That word — or one similar to it — came to mind the other day as Answer Man vegetated in front of the TV. An ad for the health insurance company Kaiser-Permanente came on and suddenly Answer Man wondered: What the heck does that mean?

“Kaiser” seems straightforward enough. No, it doesn’t refer to the German emperor, which itself comes from the Roman word “Caesar.” (Unlike our current pronunciation, the Romans pronounced the word with a hard C.) It’s from Henry J. Kaiser, the industrialist who ran steel mills and shipyards in the 1930s and 1940s.

But why “Permanente”? Kaiser operated a cement plant near Cupertino, Calif. Running through the property was the Permanente Creek , so named by Spanish explorers because it was ever-flowing. Kaiser and his wife, Bess, had a cabin near the creek. When he founded a medical plan for workers in his shipyards — the precursor to today’s insurance giant — he adopted the creek’s healthful-sounding name.

A correction

Answer Man incorrectly stated that those distinctive metal geodetic survey markers are placed by the U.S. Geological Survey. In fact, the National Geodetic Survey is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Have a question about the Washington area? Send it to answerman@washpost.com.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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