Backyard History

What are the three most historic places you’ve ever visited?

A friend recently posted this question to Facebook; dozens of people commented, listing a wide variety of places. The three that immediately came to my mind were the Colosseum (Rome), Ford’s Theatre (Washington, DC), and Dealey Plaza (Dallas).

Still, limiting my answer to these three places seemed so inadequate. I mean, how, exactly, can “most historic” be defined? The Colosseum seemed an obvious choice, for the sheer number of events which occurred there – including the martyrdom of so many early Christians, which would prove to be the seedbed of the Church’s growth. But is it really “more” historic than St. Peter’s, across town? Think of everything that’s happened there.

Back home in the USA, I gravitated toward the two Presidential assassination sites, because of the dramatic impact each one had on the course of our nation’s history. Each marked a major interruption. But, again, is Ford’s Theatre “more” historic than the White House, just a few blocks away? Or the US Capitol building?

All kinds of other places came to mind: Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, Arlington Cemetery, Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church in Boston, and so on. In the early 1980s, I visited the USS Missouri (when she was mothballed at Bremerton) and stood on the spot where the treaty ending World War II was signed. Historic? Of course, though I’d argue that the “Mighty Mo” made a bigger impact on history through her role in battle than for providing a location to sign a treaty.

As you search your own thoughts, and try to come up with your own list, keep something else in mind: the most profound impacts on history can be set in motion by events that now seem mundane — and in places that are now largely forgotten.

One of those places is lurking in our own backyard, and I had the pleasure of visiting it this week for the first time. Just a few miles from where we live, there is an 88-acre patch of woods called Meridian-Baseline State Park. I’d wager that most people in Michigan (including most people who live near us) have never heard of it. The entrance is not well marked, and I drove past it dozens of times before I even realized it was there. From the small sign along Meridian Road, you wouldn’t guess it included much more than a dirt parking lot and some nature trails.

And yet, on a spot that’s about a half-mile hike from the parking lot, something happened about two hundred years ago which has had an arguably bigger impact on our everyday lives than events which have occurred anywhere else in the state. Deep in those woods are the two bronze markers from which the entire rest of the state was surveyed and platted. Without that survey, we wouldn’t have reliable property boundaries today. Moreover, the roads could not have been properly laid out and aligned. I doubt many of us have stopped to think about how chaotic everyday life would be without the surveying work that was done to establish these lines.

Meridan - Baseline North Initial Point Marker

Why does the park have two markers? Why not a single “zero” point? The state does have only one north-south meridian, but somehow the east-west baseline got screwed up. Instead of a single baseline, we are the only state which has two baseline points along the meridian. The one farther north is the baseline for all points east, and the one approximately 935 feet south is the baseline for all points west. If you look closely at a map, you’ll notice that the Jackson – Ingham County boundary doesn’t exactly align. The 935-foot baseline discrepancy is the reason. (Many of the rural roads around here also take a sharp series of turns right at the meridian; I suspect this is due to the same issue.)

The kids and I had a fantastic time visiting the park this week. The trails are in good shape, and it’s a very pleasant walk through the woods. We got to experience an important (if unsung) historical site — and the “misaligned baseline” provided an excellent teaching opportunity about the importance of paying attention to even the smallest details, and executing one’s work with care. What may seem like a small mistake or oversight can end up having permanent repercussions.


What hidden historical places are lurking in your own neighborhood?

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