X marks the spot. But what is the spot, exactly?


Robert Callaway poses with a stone survey marker he found in McLean. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist July 27, 2013

It was when Robert Callaway started walking, rather than jogging, that he began to notice things. An operation on his meniscus had slowed him down a bit, and while on one of his rehabilitation ambles around his McLean neighborhood, he came upon the steps of an old house, the only remnant of a structure that was long gone.

But it was something near the crumbling steps that has become Robert’s obsession over the past few months: a concrete marker about six inches square sunk into the ground and marked on the top with an X and the letters “US.”

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

“I thought that would give me some historical reference,” Robert said of the concrete post. “If I can figure when this post is from, I can figure when this house is from.”

That has proved harder than he thought. They weren’t placed by Fairfax County. They aren’t U.S. Geological Survey geodetic markers. Those have a distinctive metal disk on top.

Robert is a former Navy pilot and NASA program manager who now works as a consultant. He is nothing if not methodical. After he found the first marker, Robert started seeing more of them. He noticed a pair on the sides of Chain Bridge Road, southwest of Hunting Avenue. He noticed some while walking along the Pimmit Run Trail.

“I went into exploration mode,” he said. “I started walking more, asking people, ‘Hey, have you seen one of these?’ ”

People looked at him like he was crazy.

He ran into a surveyor while on one of his walks and asked him what he thought they could be. “He said, ‘Those are right-of-way posts,’ ” Robert said. “ ‘If it says US on it, it’s probably from the U.S. government for some large project.’ ”

Robert had a pretty good idea what that project was. With a smartphone app that notes latitude and longitude, he started plotting them on a map. They all followed the contours of the Dulles Access Road and were typically placed about 500 to 600 feet apart. Soon he was able to predict where he would find them.

Robert has located 28 markers. He’s sure there must be more. He got lost one day around Herndon and found a few out there. Some of those are marked with the letters VDH (Virginia Department of Highways) or VDHT (Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation), precursors to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

“They show up in the weirdest places but all seem connected to the access road but also maybe to I-66,” he said.

I asked Robert what he was hoping for. He’d like a definitive answer as to what they are. He’d like a map that plots each one. And he wonders if they’re still operative, so to speak. For example, there’s a pair near Dolley Madison Boulevard and Anderson Road. A line drawn between them bisects a distinctive octagonal office building.

“If this is in my back yard, am I a little nervous?” he wondered.

Well, they probably are operative, although to answer the question definitively about any specific piece of property would require the services of a professional land surveyor, said Michael Zmuda, a former state survey engineer with VDOT.

“There is no master list of right-of-way boundary markers,” Michael wrote in an e-mail. “Each government owner has its own land records and most of the [right-of-way] information is recorded in the court house of the locality where the property exists. You would need to research the land records and retrieve any deeds and plats to ascertain how many markers may exist for those particular tracts of land.”

Michael agrees that most of these markers delineate the Dulles Access and Toll roads, which are owned by the feds, with easements granted to Virginia. The assortment of markers — US, VDH, VDHT — is because of widening projects over the years.

As simple as they are, the markers tell the story of growth in our region. They are also a reminder that not everything is on the Internet. Robert has Googled galore and found no reference to the posts. It may be that no one is as interested in them as he is.

Send a kid to camp

The low temperatures that were such a joy in Washington this past week were doubly appreciated at Camp Moss Hollow, the summer camp for at-risk kids from the D.C. area. This is the final week of our fundraising campaign, and now is a perfect time to donate. A generous donor is matching gifts one-to-one.

And if you donate $150 to $249 before the end of the campaign Friday, you will receive a $25 gift certificate for Clyde’s. Donate $250 or more for a $50 one. (Certificates will be sent in September.)

To donate, go to washingtonpost.com/camp and click where it says “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15251-0045.

Have a question about the Washington area? Write answerman@washpost.com. For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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