the southern boundary of the District of Columbia is at Jones Point, and today the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is divided between three jurisdictions
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
After 1632, Virginia's boundary along the entire Potomac River was the river's edge on the Virginia side, the "further Bank of the said River" (not the middle of the river) as defined by King Charles I's charter granting a colony to the Calverts. That changed with the cession of land from Virginia in 1801 to create the District of Columbia.
In the 1790 Residence Act, Congress approved moving the national capital permanently to the Potomac River. President Washington was given authority to choose the specific location for a 100-square mile Federal district, somewhere upstream of the Anacostia River.
Washington ignored the requirement to locate the capital upstream of the Anacostia River. Instead. he chose to locate the southern tip at Jones Point and incorporate Alexandria within the boundary, even though the town was downstream of the authorized location. Congress quickly amended the Residence Act to ratify his decision. Washington shaped the District so Virginia would contribute 1/3 of the land, Maryland would contribute the majority of the land, and Maryland's port town of Georgetown would be included.
George Washington, portrayed with his hand on a map of the District of Columbia
Source: Library of Congress, George Washington and his family by George Edward Perine
To define the 100-square mile district, Andrew Ellicott and his hired assistants (including Benjamin Banneker) surveyed four straight lines. Each was 10 miles long, running straight to the intersection with other boundary lines.
From Jones Point, the lines went 45° to the northeast and 45° to the northwest, then angled again after 10 miles to create a square. On a map oriented north-south, the new Federal district resembled a diamond with the southern tip at Jones Point. The surveyors erected stone markers one mile apart to document the boundary lines, with 14 stones used to mark the Virginia-District boundary.
the boundary between Virginia-DC, surveyed by Andrew Ellicott after the 1790 Residence Act, cut straight lines across the Potomac River and across topographic features
(note that north is to the upper left of the map, as indicated by the rosette)
Source: Library of Congress, Territory of Columbia
The new District of Columbia included the Potomac River, plus land on both sides of the river where it flowed through the new jurisdiction. The survey lines defining the southeast and southwestern edges of the district cut straight across the Potomac River, intersecting at a 90° angle. Ellicott never surveyed the shoreline of the Potomac River to define the old boundary between Maryland and Virginia, because under the Residence Act both sides of the river would be transferred into the District of Columbia.
the portion of Virginia ceded to the District of Columbia was carved out of Fairfax County
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of the city of Washington (1800)
Maryland transferred its jurisdiction over its 2/3 of the District in 1791. For a decade after the survey, however, the 1/3 of the district that would be transferred from Virginia remained under Virginia jurisdiction. The Virginia General Assembly had authorized the cession, but required the Federal government to establish some form of local government before ending Virginia's jurisdiction. Even in early 1801, state laws were passed that applied to the Virginia portion of the not-yet-final District.1
When jurisdiction of the town of Alexandria and a slice of Fairfax County was formally transferred to the District, for the first time the Virginia-District boundary was the pair of straight lines surveyed by Andrew Ellicott.
District of Columbia boundaries in 1835
Source: Library of Congress, District of Columbia
Jurisdiction was returned or "retroceded" to Virginia in 1847, after the General Assembly concurred with the 1846 decision by the US Congress and assumed jurisdiction. In 1870, the city of Alexandria became independent from Alexandria County, and the county was renamed "Arlington County" in 1920.
Retrocession altered the Virginia-DC boundary. Congress gave back its claim to the Virginia land, but retained the portion ceded by Maryland in 1791. Congress did not attempt to alter the historic Virginia-Maryland boundary line; it was not generous enough to define a new Virginia-District boundary in the middle of the Potomac River.
The District retained control over the Potomac River, all the way to the low water mark on the Virginia side. In 1847 the Virginia-District boundary became the "further Bank" of the river for a 12-mile stretch, based on the Virginia-Maryland line defined in Maryland's 1632 charter.
the boundary between Virginia-District of Columbia became the low water mark on the Virginia shoreline after retrocession in 1847
Source: Library of Congress, Map of Washington D.C. and vicinity (1860)
The straight lines separating the two jurisdictions, based on Ellicott's survey, were replaced with a new boundary based on the unsurveyed low water mark. Complicating the issue further, alterations to the Virginia shoreline made it hard to determine the exact location of the low water mark when Virginia ceded land to the District in 1801.
The Alexandria waterfront had been expanded into the Potomac River to create more land for shipping wharves and warehouses. Docks were built along the shoreline, then earth from the city was dumped between them to create new land for wharves and warehouses. Old ships were also used as "fill" to create the new land. New docks were constructed on the new shoreline, extending out into the river channel again.
in 2016, excavation to build a new hotel on the waterfront revealed the remains of a ship that had been scuttled in the late 1700's to extend the shoreline beyond the natural low water mark
Source: City of Alexandria, Nautical Discoveries at 220 South Union Street
Two blocks of new land were created on the Alexandria waterfront. Merchants and shippers moved the edge of the river from the base of Carlyle House (modern Lee Street) to its present location. The location of the "further Bank" referenced in the 1632 charter from Charles I granting the colony of Maryland to the Calverts, and the edge of the Potomac River in 1791 when Maryland ceded its territory, were buried by the new land.
in 1749, the Alexandria waterfront stopped at what became Water Street
Source: Library of Congress, A plan of Alexandria, now Belhaven (1749)
the Alexandria waterfront was enlarged first by constructing wharves (shown in orange), then filling in between the wharves with dirt (shown in red and green)
Source: Office of Historic Alexandria/ Alexandria Archaeology, Traveler’s Accounts of the Historic Alexandria Waterfront (p.12)
by 1845, wharves (blue) stretched far beyond the 1791 Alexandria shoreline (red)
Source: City of Alexandria, Historic Wharves Map
by 1862, the Alexandria waterfront had expanded 1-2 blocks past the 1791 shoreline
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of Alexandria (1862)
In the 1880's and 1890's, the Potomac River was dredged to improve navigation. The dredged material was dumped on the northern bank, filling the Potomac Flats and creating what is now the sites of the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, East Potomac Park, and West Potomac Park The Virginia shoreline between the Long Bridge and Analostan/Mason Island (now Teddy Roosevelt Island) was also modified, but the Virginia-District boundary was not changed by the placement of dredge spoils.
the boundary between Virginia-DC is the shoreline - except in places where the shoreline has been altered by adding dirt on the DC side of the 1791 boundary
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
the postal address of the Pentagon (Washington, DC 20301-1400) does not reflect the boundary; the five-sided headquarters of the Department of Defense is located west of Boundary Channel - in Virginia
Source: District of Columbia GIS Services, DC Boundary
Federal acquisition of the Arlington estate to create Arlington National Cemetery, plus investments in the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the Memorial Bridge, were followed by construction of National Airport. That facility was built on landfill, and a 1931 lawsuit over the submerged gravel in the Potomac River led to a US Supreme Court decision defining clearly that the Virginia-District boundary was the high-water line.
That decision was consistent with the court's ruling in a 1922 case that the 1877 Black-Jenkins Award between Maryland and Virginia (in which Virginia acquire prescriptive rights to the low-water line) did not apply to the District. Also, in contrast to the Virginia-Maryland line, the boundary does not go from headland to headland but instead follows the meandering high-water line, which the US Coast and Geodetic Survey surveyed in 1947.2
modern boundary of Arlington County, overlayed on 1865 map, shows how construction of Reagan National Airport (red X) altered the shoreline and expanded the land area of Virginia into the Potomac River
Source: Alexandria County GIS, AC Maps
gray outline of runways at Reagan National Airport and modern Metrorail Blue Line route show changes in shoreline since 1900
Source: Alexandria County GIS, AC Maps
In 1945, Congress solved the problem of defining the location of the 1791 high-water line. Congress declared that Virginia's boundary with the District of Columbia was the high-water line as of the 1945 law, and would change as water levels changed after that date - except for downtown Alexandria, from Second Street to the Maryland line. There, the Corps of Engineers had defined a "pierhead" line in 1939 for the edge of waterfront improvements. That 1945 law bumped out the boundary and created straight lines that put all of the developed waterfront within the jurisdiction of Virginia.
dredges excavated the bed of the Potomac River to create National Airport, and the George Washington Parkway was relocated to provide space on the shoreline
Source: Smithsonian Institution, Oblique aerial view looking south of dredge and fill activities in the Gravelly Point area of the Potomac River for construction of Washington National Airport (DCA); November 16, 1939
it took an act of Congress in 1945 to determine that what is now Reagan National Airport was located in Virginia, above the mean high water mark of the Potomac River
Source: Smithsonian Institution, Air Transport, Airports, USA; Virginia, Washington (Ronald Reagan) National Airport
at Second Street, the boundary between Virginia-DC shifts from the high-water line to the pierhead line along the Alexandria waterfront - but even the City of Alexandria maps are still confusing
Source: City of Alexandria, GIS Parcel Viewer
District of Columbia maps show that its boundary shifts from the high-water mark to the pierhead line, near the Canal Center complex in Alexandria
Source: District of Columbia GIS Services, DC Boundary
As the high-water mark changes through natural processes, the Virginia-DC boundary shifts. As construction projects alter the pierline, the Virginia-DC boundary shifts. The Federal government owns the bed of the Potomac River where it is navigable, and filed suit in 1973 (United States v. Robertson Terminal Warehouse, Inc.) to resolve who owned the "filled land" beyond the shoreline that existed in 1791.
The Federal government did not seek to gain title to the land beyond the 1791 boundary, or to remove the modern structures. The lawsuit was designed to force waterfront landowners to allow public access along the river's edge, and to limit new development on the edge of Potomac River in Alexandria. Most landowners settled rather than fight. The owners of the warehouses negotiated deals that authorized greater development density on their land, and Alexandria proceeded to build Oronoco Bay Park and Founders Park.
One of the 34 initial defendants was the Old Dominion Boat Club, which had a boathouse and marina at the foot of King Street. It had the resources and the will to contest the Federal claim and litigate the case to closure, and the boat club spent 38 years in court.
When the Federal government set up municipal government in the District of Columbia, it declared that state laws would stay in force. To decide a case initiated in 1973, Federal courts used Maryland law as it stood in 1801.
Virginia law was irrelevant to the case - Maryland's state law applied up to the high-water mark of the Potomac River. In 1801, the state's common law allowed riparian landowners to build wharves and piers. There were no laws to protect the Potomac River's wetlands or other environmental resources in 1801; altering the shoreline for improved commerce, including creating new land, was permitted.
The US District Court rejected any claim that the riparian owners had gained title to the land through accretion, because the expansion of the shoreline had been by purposeful human action to create fill and wharves rather than by natural processes. The boat club won its case in District Court in 2008, and then won the appeal in Circuit Court in 2011, on different grounds.
once passengers board the sightseeing boats that dock at Alexandria, they will be in the jurisdiction of the District at all times - beyond the pierhead line (Old Dominion Boat Club circled in red)
Source: District of Columbia GIS Services, DC Boundary
The Circuit Court affirmed the earlier decision that the boat club owned the land where it was located, because it was authorized under Maryland law to extend the shoreline:3
After the decision, Alexandria pursued its efforts to obtain public access to the river through the Old Dominion Boat Club. The city threatened to condemn the private property, and the club finally agreed to sell it. The price to acquire the boat club's half-acre of land at the end of King Street was $5 million, and the club will relocate to a city-owned building at the end of Prince Street just one block away. A comparable 1983 plan to purchase the club's land and move it to the foot of Montgomery Street had been blocked by the Federal government, when it was claiming jurisdiction over the filled land beyond the 1791 shoreline.4
at the foot of King Street, the boundary of the District of Columbia is at the pierhead line on the Alexandria waterfront
Source: City of Alexandria, Tax Map 75.01
Resolution of public access will facilitate implementation of Alexandria's Waterfront Small Area Plan. That proposal was controversial because it increased density in the area, increasing traffic and pedestrian congestion.
Opponents were able to get the number of hotels reduced from three to two, reducing the total number of rooms from 450 to 300, but were unable to reduce the planned increase in density at the sites of the old warehouses. The final settlement of the Federal government's claim to the ownership of the land underneath those warehouses had resulted in a legal settlement that provided for greater development density.5
the Robinson Terminal North warehouse will be redeveloped from industrial to housing/retail/commercial uses, following resolution of ownership issues and adoption of the Alexandria Waterfront Plan
Source: Alexandria Waterfront DRAFT Small Area Plan (p.46)
the boundary stones marking the District-Virginia and District-Maryland boundaries reveal the diamond pattern established by George Washington's decision to locate the southern tip at Jones Point
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online (with DC Boundary Stones layer)
Boundary Channel at Pentagon, with red line showing border between DC and Arlington County
1. Phillips v. Payne, US Supreme Court, 1875, online in OpenJurist, http://openjurist.org/92/us/130 (last checked September 2, 2014)
2. Smoot Sand & Gravel Corporation v. Washington Airport, Inc., 283 U.S. 348, 1931, https://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/US/283/283.US.348.678.html; Kenneth Lasson, "A History Of Potomac River Conflicts," paper presented at Legal Rights In Potomac Waters Conference, sponsored by Interstate Commission On The Potomac River Basin, Harpers Ferry, 1976, http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5700/sc5796/000009/000000/000012/unrestricted/lasson.html; Franklin K. Van Zandt, Boundaries of the United States and the Several States, US Government Printing Office, 1976 p.91, http://books.google.com/books?id=skxAAAAAIAAJ (last checked September 2, 2014)
3. US v. Old Dominion Boat Club, US Court of Appeals - District of Columbia Circuit, No. 09-5363, January 11, 2011, http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/1BBF142F8688E363852578170053F3BE/$file/09-5363-1287248.pdf (last checked September 3, 2014)
4. "Old Dominion Boat Club to sell clubhouse and parking lot to Alexandria for $5 million," Washington Post, March 24, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/old-dominion-boat-club-to-sell-clubhouse-and-parking-lot-to-alexandria-for-5-million/2014/03/24/6b92a932-b365-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html; "Alexandria Postpones Boat Club Land Swap; Official Says U.S. Objection Killed Plan," Washington Post, April 10, 1985, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/alexandria-postpones-boat-club-land-swap-official-says-us-objection-killed-plan/2013/10/17/5e65d136-3759-11e3-8a0e-4e2cf80831fc_story.html (last checked September 3, 2014)
5. "Update: Alexandria Approves A Waterfront Plan," The Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU, January 23, 2012, http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2012-01-23/update-alexandria-approves-waterfront-plan/transcript (last checked September 3, 2014)
George Washington (on horse) chose the site of the new national capital, Pierre Charles L'Enfant (showing sketch to Washington) prepared the initial city plan, and many unnamed slaves and free black laborers (such as the unidentified man holding the horse) built the structures such as the US Capitol
Source: Architect of the Capitol, Capitol Site Selection, 1791