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The Wild Man At The Center Of The World
A glimpse at the WPA's 1937 travel guide reveals a time when Washington revolved around Meridian Hill Park -- and was home to a poet who thought it revolved around him

By David Taylor
Sunday, May 18, 2008

SITTING ON A BENCH IN MERIDIAN HILL PARK ON A BRISK AFTERNOON, I look south over rooftops to where the Washington Monument's needle is poised to pop the blue sky. The rising breeze brings a whiff of cigar smoke from the guy on the terrace below. A young couple pushing a stroller pauses at the Joan of Arc statue.

From my book bag, I pull out my copy of Washington: City and Capital. Thicker than a Bible and heavy as uranium, it's one of 74 guidebooks (one for each state, plus the territories, some regions and a few cities) published in the first half of last century by the Federal Writers' Project, which was the Works Project Administration's Depression-relief experiment for scribes. It also has 1,167 pages, plus a map tucked in the back -- which is crazy for a travel guide. (When the book was published in 1937, Franklin Roosevelt quipped that it should come with its own steamer trunk.) But that back-straining abundance yields treasures that the guides' thinner, newer descendants have long sloughed off.

Flipping to a page halfway through, I find a story new to me, even though I grew up in the Washington area and for years lived within a five-minute walk of Malcolm X Park, as this spot was known then. It's the curious 19th century tale of Joaquin Miller, the eccentric "poet of the Sierras" who holed up in a log cabin right here for several years. And it involves the imaginary line that nearly put his cabin at the center of the world.

MILLER (1839-1913) WAS AT VARIOUS TIMES A COAL MINER, lawyer, judge, fruit grower, convicted horse thief, world traveler and Klondike correspondent for the New York Journal.

"He was flamboyant," says Karren Alenier, who founded the Miller cabin series of poetry readings in the 1970s. She and fellow members of Word Works, a literary group, obtained a permit to hold workshops in the cabin, which was moved to Rock Creek Park in 1912. "We would light candles," she says of the early gatherings. "It was dusty and kind of dark. We would nail poems to the walls because that's what Joaquin Miller did.

"None of us thought he was a great poet," she adds. "He was a poseur." One biography of Miller, in fact, is titled Splendid Poseur.

Born Cincinnatus Hiner Miller in Indiana, Miller grew up in Oregon and California, where he lived for a while in the shadow of Mount Shasta. He adopted the first name of Mexican folk hero and bandit Joaquin Murietta, published two slender volumes of poetry in the United States, and then left for London, where his outsize persona and fourth book, Songs of the Sierras, made him a literary discovery -- one in a series of "noble savages" who visited from the New World, going back at least to the coonskin cap-wearing Ben Franklin. To feed his growing legend, Miller wore colorful clothes and scurried around on the floors of London literary salons, grabbing at the ankles of British ladies and making them cry out, says Alenier. "He was quite a character."

When he later moved to Washington, Miller would sashay down Pennsylvania Avenue in Indian leggings and a deerskin coat, ignoring the heads that swiveled toward him. He told outrageous tales about how he started the West's first pony express and dispensed justice in Oregon as a judge "with one law book and two six-shooters." And he loved playing practical jokes, preferably with a big audience. Once he shaved his beard in public just to make a show. He was immensely popular for a time, and generations of schoolchildren memorized his poem "Columbus," with its scene of the explorer inspiring his crew:

Brave Admiral, say but one good word:

What shall we do when hope is gone?

The words leapt like a leaping sword:

"Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!"

"His celebrity status as a wild westerner and creator of a fanciful fictive world outweighs the intrinsic aesthetic demerits of his writings," wrote Benjamin Lawson in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ouch.

So, Miller was no Walt Whitman. Songs of the Sierras will never be "Song of Myself." But he wrote several plays that got produced; his columns appeared in many newspapers (including this one); and with his international fame, he championed Whitman at a time when the literati dismissed the poet as obscene.

Miller came to the District in 1883, a decade after Songs of the Sierras made his fame. He was at a low point in his life. He had just lost a fortune on a bad investment tip from millionaire Jay Gould, who advised the poet to buy Vandalia Railroad stock and sell Western Union. Western Union stock went through the roof; Vandalia went into receivership; and Miller lost $22,000 or more. (Meanwhile, Gould rejected his own advice and did the opposite, making a killing.) After that, in the words of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, Miller had "no time for parlor posing or picturesque eccentricities." He needed to make money. Plus, his second marriage, to New York hotel heiress Abbie Leland, was falling apart. (Miller was terrible at marriage and was a deadbeat dad, as well.) Washington was a compromise for the couple. Miller said Manhattan was suffocating his Western spirit, and he wanted to go back across the country; Abbie refused to go any deeper into the wilderness than Washington. They spent several months in a tony place on California Street NW, but Miller's fame opened no doors here (he was a Democrat during a Republican administration), and he wasted his time lounging with bohemians such as Whitman. Abbie took their young daughter and went back to New York. Miller looked for a house where he could recapture his frontier muse.

Housing prices were sky high, and he couldn't afford any of the places the real estate agent showed him. It was also just before an uncertain presidential election, and the boom time that Mark Twain labeled the Gilded Age was fading.

"Despairing," Miller wrote in a column, "I climbed the crescent of hills to the northwest" and stopped under a cluster of oaks outside the city limits. After admiring the view and talking with a Civil War veteran who had lived in the neighborhood for a dozen years, Miller bought a few acres, hired some laborers and built a house that he said was an "exact duplicate of the cabin belonging to his Shasta country days in California," according to one biographer. It was about 12-by-20 feet, situated just north of where 16th Street NW's pavement ended in a dirt road, miles from any streetcar. Set back from the road where present-day Crescent Place meets 16th, Miller had the cabin built on what he called "a little edge of God's rest."

Washington ended at Boundary Street, now Florida Avenue NW, says Steve Coleman, executive director of Washington Parks & People, a nonprofit advocacy group for the city's parks. The neighborhood to the north was more suburban. After rains, yellow clay streamed down a steep escarpment and turned the road to mud. The space that is now the park held scattered buildings, including several tenements and the Wayland Seminary for black Baptists. (Columbian College, which during the Civil War had served as the hospital where Whitman volunteered, left the hill in the 1870s and eventually became George Washington University.) Meridian Hill was where city-dwellers came to escape the summer heat, enjoy concerts and feel the breeze.

SOMETIMES WE FORGET THAT WASHINGTON IS THE CENTER OF THE WORLD. Okay, we never forget, but we don't remember the exact coordinates. But the coordinates of the Washington meridian were mapped by Benjamin Banneker and Maj. Andrew Elliott in 1791, and marked with two-foot-tall stone obelisks that Thomas Jefferson placed on the Ellipse, at the White House and up 16th Street, the last one -- on the city's center line -- giving Meridian Hill its name.

Coleman likes to show visitors those coordinates while standing astride the yellow lane divider in the middle of four lanes of traffic.

"Looking down 16th Street, you feel the meridian," he says. As cars begin to bear down on us, I follow his gesture and see, yes, 16th Street pointing straight as a bowling lane south to the White House, the Washington Monument, the river beyond, all aligned.

Long before, Native Americans regarded Meridian Hill as a major intersection, where the east-west fall line of the Appalachian Piedmont met a clear sightline down the main branch of the Potomac River. "On a clear day," Coleman says, "they could have seen the ripples from schools of seven-foot sturgeon on the river."

I step clear of an SUV charging up 16th, but Coleman lingers to consider how the meridian later became a racial divider. It became "sort of the Maginot line of black and white Washington," he says. That division, rooted early in the 20th century, climaxed with the riots that erupted just blocks away, at 14th and U streets NW, after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Throughout the park, Coleman points out details that hint at its position of global significance -- obelisks on the wall, spherical iron fence ornaments. At a spot along the park's western edge, we look across the road to the cabin's original site. It is now the location of the White-Meyer House on the grounds of the Meridian International Center. Coleman pauses at a plaque at the edge of the park: "The Stone marking the Washington Meridian was formerly located 52 feet 9 inches west of this tablet." The spot Miller chose as his bit of the wilderness was right on the capital's center line.

Throughout the 1800s, time was a work-in-progress. For much of the century, people set their watches to local solar time, determining noon to be the moment when the sun was directly overhead and casting no shadows. In 1850, the Naval Observatory, then in Foggy Bottom, began setting time for ships and Navy yards by dropping a very visible "time ball" at noon Washington time, like the one that drops at midnight in Times Square to ring in the new year.

By the late 1860s, the railroads kept their own time, but you had to know which railroad to know the time: There were more than 80, and each kept time according to its headquarter city, regardless of where you might catch a particular train on its travels. It would be like having to set your departure schedule by whether you were flying Northwest (Minneapolis time) or Delta (Atlanta time). Time was getting complicated.

In 1870, a headmaster at a women's seminary in New York proposed that railroads adopt four time zones evenly spaced across the country, the first zone centered on Washington time. Later, as the telegraph became more common, Washington Mean Noon was telegraphed daily nationwide. The railroad companies adopted it as a standard for regional time zones, to synchronize train schedules and make business more efficient. In effect, Washington Mean Time carried weight for timekeeping anyplace in America that had a telegraph or kept railroad time. Washington's meridian also had sway in mapmaking and determined the borders of several western states, including Colorado and the Dakotas.

When Miller moved here, Washington Mean Time was the standard. Then, in November 1883, time changed. At the urging of the railroads, the Naval Observatory issued a bulletin announcing a new standard -- a subtraction of 8 minutes and 12.09 seconds, to better align with the Greenwich, England, meridian. It was enough to erase anyone's margin for catching a train -- and it caused a stir.

A Washington Post reporter went canvassing local jewelers and watchmakers one evening that month and found deep divisions on this matter of time. On Seventh Street NW, the Schmedtie brothers thought that most of their peers would accept the new standard. A shop owner on Ninth Street said he'd stick to the old time. One jeweler struck an awkward middle ground: He'd keep the new standard in his window but the old time on his reference timepiece. The clocks of the Baltimore and Potomac railroad would adopt the new time; the U.S. Post Office, Interior, War and Navy departments would stick to the old. Although the railroad companies' new standard was "unprecedented," The Post offered wry reassurance to anyone worried "that this shaking up of time standards may endanger the stability of the universe." Officials at the Observatory joined in, insisting tongue-in-cheek that the sun, moon and stars would "roll along in their appointed courses in obedience to the law of gravitation, just the same as if no railroads had ever been invented."

The next step in standardizing time was to establish an international zero meridian -- an invisible north-to-south line from pole to pole -- that would serve as a global reference point. Within a year, delegates from 25 nations would gather in Washington to hash out the location. Greenwich and Washington (its meridian then determined by the Naval Observatory to be in Foggy Bottom, not on Jefferson's line) each had its backers to become the globe's Zero Hour. Most of the world's sailors used the Greenwich meridian for navigation; surveyors and astronomers used the Washington meridian for their maps and charts.

The Washington meridian was considered during the 1884 International Meridian Conference, notes Geoff Chester, public affairs officer at the Naval Observatory, "because we had a better idea of what our meridian was, in terms of the physical location." The observatory's then-location in Foggy Bottom had been set using two instruments simultaneously, arguably for greater precision. Greenwich had been measured once.

"Having a meridian in a particular country was something of a political football," Chester says. The French argued for Paris and strongly resisted a world clock centered on their rival Britain. Another proposal would have placed the meridian in the middle of an ocean, like the international date line. But though Washington had a shot, Greenwich -- because of its role in navigation -- had the edge from the beginning.

ON HIS HILL, MILLER PAPERED HIS CABIN WALLS WITH NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS AND MANUSCRIPTS. Apparently oblivious to the meridian melee, he thought, read and tried to write. He traipsed around in a frock coat with a giant tasseled sombrero over his long blond hair, and kept decidedly above the political fray. "I sit up here in my fine cabin," he reportedly said, "while the President sits down there at the end of the street with his little cabinet," a play on words that made Miller's home sound larger than Chester Arthur's entire administration, the way "booklet" is a small book.

When the writer Eugene Field visited the poet one brisk March day in 1884, he found himself taking a long, uphill walk and then a left turn "under a group of rugged oaks a hundred feet back from the highway," according to The Post.

The walls were made of simply hewn logs with plaster between them. Inside, the few furnishings included some heavy chairs and a low pine table overflowing with papers. Miller's bed stood in the corner, a spectacle itself: Its corner posts were made of tree trunks still covered in bark and moss. Miller threw fur robes and animal skins on the bed -- no mattress or springs for him. In back stood a well and a small (and presumably vacant) servants' quarters.

The visitor soaked up the view out front: the lazy Potomac beyond the recently finished Washington Monument; the rooftops, avenues and statues; "the clear, blue sky and the sunshine." Miller gave Field a copy of his new book as a parting gift.

That spring, as the 1884 presidential campaign was heating up, Miller felt pulled from poetry to punditry. More people were visiting the cabin, including congressmen coming to see the internationally famous poet. Some callers came bearing gifts of food; others brought jugs of whiskey. Miller groused about curiosity seekers, but he still met them, dressed in his boots and sombrero, sometimes with a bearskin slung over his shoulder. It was the very same skin, he said, that Prince Albert and other nobles had touched during Miller's tour of Britain. When one caller offered to buy the bearskin, Miller managed to part with it. He sold eight other "authentic" bearskin souvenirs of his European conquest the same way.

One day that spring, Miller ventured down to Capitol Hill to record his impressions of the Senate, a "five-minute photograph in ink" published in The Post. He described the Senate Gallery as a "big corral" that could hold about 200 "fat and full-grown steers." He depicted scurrying pages and a senator on the floor, waving his fists and vigorously addressing a speech to constituents 1,000 miles away, while the only audience in earshot -- other senators -- either slept or wandered away. Under his dateline, "The Cabin," Miller skewered the House of Representatives the same way.

In May, he devoted a column to sizing up the presidential candidates, confessing at the end, "I know as little about who will be the Republican nominee . . . as I did in the beginning." He made another stab in June, this time assessing the Democratic challengers, and got no closer. His reports never mentioned the eventual winner, Grover Cleveland. Miller was out of his element, but at the cabin he made the case that it was politicians who were out of touch.

AS THE INTERNATIONAL MERIDIAN CONFERENCE PREPARED TO CONVENE AT THE STATE DEPARTMENT, newspapers proclaimed its importance for world commerce. The New York Times urged a consensus on some meridian, whether Greenwich or another, but pooh-poohed Washington's claim. While some maps reckoned longitude from Washington, the Times editorial said, "in practice not one man in a thousand would think of the longitude of New York or any other city of the Union in its relation to the national capital."

When the officials convened at noon on October 1, they took only a day to declare jointly that a common prime meridian was desirable. But before getting more specific, they had to pass resolutions on how to arrange their chairs (alphabetically by country). Then, according to the Times, a discussion of which meridian to adopt immediately brought "an angry and at times heated debate."

By late October, the conference had resolved that the universal day would be 24 hours and start "for all the world at the moment of mean midnight of the initial meridian coinciding with the beginning of the civil day and date of that meridian." It would take decades for others to decipher that and make it work.

Even after everyone generally agreed to the Greenwich meridian, implementation was slow. The French balked until the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912. A French ocean liner had signaled the locations of ice fields in the Titanic's path, using time determined by the Paris meridian. Any navigator on the Titanic would have known how to convert that, the Naval Observatory's Chester says, but "it's a pain" and takes time. Conceding that, the French accepted the Greenwich meridian to prevent further loss of life.

"WHAT I FIND FASCINATING," SAYS CHESTER, "is that in this country there was no definition of standard time zones until 1918."

Time passed anyway. After Cleveland was elected, Miller offered his name as ambassador to Japan. His language skills were rusty, he admitted, but his poetry was popular in Japan. He didn't get that post and reportedly turned down the job of superintendent of Indian Affairs. Instead, he returned to his beloved West, where he built another cabin on the heights above Oakland, Calif.

Miller's Washington area cabin stood empty. According to Adrienne Coleman, Park Service superintendent for Rock Creek Park and Meridian Hill, it was sold to a man named Henry White. By June 1887, Assistant Secretary of State Alvey Adee was living there. Then in 1912, the California State Association moved it to Rock Creek Park and grandly presented it to the nation. Miller died a year later in Oakland.

On summer evenings, the Miller cabin draws poets to Rock Creek. Karren Alenier says that when the cabin was condemned years ago, the poets began meeting outside. One performance involved people dressing up in Robin Hood-like outfits with stockings over their heads. The Park Police got calls about marauders and investigated. "They were taken aback by the performance aspect of what we were doing," says Alenier. The police demanded to see the poets' license to use the site.

Helen Sitar, 18, discovered the cabin at age 11 when her father took her to one of the readings. "It's not what you expect to find in Rock Creek Park," she says. She won Word Works' Young Poets contest in 2006 and, as part of her prize, was to read her poems at the cabin that August. But weather intervened, in the shape of a thunderstorm -- "flooding," says Sitar, "downed branches, that sort of thing" -- forcing Alenier to cancel the event. But Sitar never got that e-mail. She had invited family and friends, and they showed up at the rain location in a church near the park's edge. They went ahead with the reading on their own. Alenier eventually dropped by and applauded.

Sitar finally got her time at the cabin last summer, a fine evening when fireflies glimmered in the grasses. The readings' organizers like to bill the events as "poetry under the stars," Sitar says, "but the readings are usually over before the sun goes down. Otherwise you wouldn't be able to read." Still, it's a nice contrast to the typical poetry reading in a cramped corner of a bookstore, Sitar says, where "you're forced to read the titles of the books on the shelves, or look at the poet, or at the other people there." At the cabin, you have an airy expanse, the creek and the woods. A timeless piece of the frontier, transplanted from Meridian Hill.

David Taylor is the author of Ginseng, the Divine Root, and is working on a documentary about the Federal Writers' Project. He can be reached at dataylor22314@gmail.com.

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