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Initial Point — The Boundary Obelisk

October 29, 2012
On the west face of Point Roberts stands a impressive obelisk marking the initial point of the boundary line between Canada and the United States of America. The monument was a joint project of the Royal Engineers and  Ebenezer Brown, and its construction during the winter of 1861-62 was fraught with difficulties. Boundary Obelisk - Point Roberts - East Face -    2012 Obelisk location on Bing Map - opens in new window

British commissioner JS Hawkins undertook to build the monument on behalf of both nations, and in May 1861 he asked Governor Douglas that WD Gosset, RE, Treasurer of the Colony of British Columbia, be permitted to superintend the work.

Specifications for Boundary Obelisk on Point Roberts

On August 15, 1861 Gosset signed a contract with Ebenezer Brown, who immediately began preparations. The British Colonist newspaper at Victoria reported August 17th that

"Mr E. Brown of New Westminster has come down on the Otter to engage stone-cutters to build a large obelisk at Point Roberts."

  Boundary Obelisk - Point Roberts - Specifications

The obelisk would stand atop a cliff on the west side of Point Roberts where the 49th parallel struck the sea. The monument was to be made of granite, obtained locally. The full height of the obelisk, resting on a massive base, would be 19 feet, 3 inches.

The Heavy Lifting

Originally intended to be completed in the autumn, the project fell behind schedule.  Hawkins wrote to his superiors that the work was "of a much heavier character than I had anticipated." He requested that Governor Douglas allow Capt Gosset more time to see the project through to completion, likely into the following year.

On October 27, 1861, Gosset wrote to Ebenezer Brown addressing a perceived deficiency.

"Sir, I have to call your attention to the fact of your contract with this commission being still uncompleted, some of the stones being imperfectly cut."

As work progressed through the winter months this was a matter that would come back to haunt Brown during the pointing and finishing of the stonework.

On November 23 the scow-schooner Mary Dare came down Fraser River from New Westminster bearing 14 granite stones.  The craft was unable to land them due to the swell, and anchored off the Point.  Two days later, with the help of Capt GH Richards and crew of the Hecate, the scow was towed to shore and the stones were landed. The schooner headed back to New Westminster to pick up another load.

At the end of November, Capt Richards returned to find the first 14 stones had been hoisted to the top of the cliff  and the men were awaiting the arrival of the Mary Dare with the remainder.   "The foundation had been laid — of granite masonry 10′ 6" square."

On December 5,  as his ship lay off Point Roberts, Richards was wary of a large storm hitting the coast — "I have never seen it blow heavier in the Strait."

Notwithstanding the adverse conditions, on the 7th Richards noted

"Got 18 stones off the vessel… 5 of them over 3 Tons weight — left 10 men under Lt Hankin to get them up the cliff — which will be a heavy job—."

Towards the end of December, the mainland fell under a severe frost.  The first month of 1862 was one of the coldest on record, with the Fraser River between New Westminster and Brownsville completely frozen over with ice to a depth of 9 inches, cutting off river traffic.

The iron pillars

As work progressed getting the large stones into place, forming a plinth and base for the obelisk, Captain CJ Darrah, RE arrived the first week of February on board the Grappler, to place iron pillars along the line of the boundary to the east face of Point Roberts. The three pillars had actually been unloaded some months earlier, in July.   Semiahmoo Bay - boundary monument  #5
Darrah and his party had been busy in the meantime setting pillars from Semiahmoo Bay to the east. These iron monuments bore simply the words “Treaty of Washington” on the north side and “June 15, 1846” on the south side.   Iron Post – Semiahmoo Bay
This boundary marker stood just above high-water mark on the east shore of Semiahmoo Bay, Beach Road passing by.

The fine details

By spring the obelisk had been erected, with only finishing work to be done, and the lettering applied. On May 2 Capt. Darrah went down from New Westminster with Ebenezer Brown to inspect the work and approve final payment on Brown’s contract.

Darrah noted a few deficiencies to be addressed.  First, there some flaws in some of the stones. Second, the size of the stones did not in every instance match the specification. Third, the faces of the stones on which the lettering would be done were not all flush with each other.  Finally, and most distressing to Capt. Darrah,  on the west face one of the stones had been cut too small, necessitating a thin slab being inserted between two larger stones. With the masonry work completed, the discrepancy was highlighted, leaping out at Darrah’s critical eye. He scribbled a hasty note to Gosset:

"It was not pointed when I was here before — Now it looks dreadful!  What J.S.H. will say I don’t know-"

There followed some wrangling between Darrah and Brown over responsibility for this error, Brown protesting that the bad setting up of the obelisk,  “with which he had nothing to do,” was to blame and  Darrah suggesting that payment would be withheld unless the work was fixed to the satisfaction of Capt Gosset.  As it stood, Darrah concluded, "taking the work all in all it cannot be considered as anything particularly superior."

Darrah later permitted Brown’s mason to patch over the double joint, conceding "It is far better now than it was before." However, he cautioned Gosset,

"Dont pay Brown please till I come up which must be on Saturday next as our grub will not last out longer."

Remedial work and lettering almost complete, the monument was fit enough to draw the grudging admiration of Capt. Darrah.

"the printing makes it look quite stunning barring the west face which has this confounded double joint in it." 

He was most pleased with the artistic hand of Corporal JB Launders:

"Launders (Parsons man) is very slow but prints beautifully – I mean to have photographs taken of all 4 faces when printing is complete."

Photo of  Boundary Obelisk Completed in 1862

“Treaty of Washington”

Whether by design or accident, the details of the flawed stone work are invisible in this photograph of the west face. 

-Library of Congress Photo

  Boundary Obelisk - Point Roberts - West Face - 1862    

Boundary Commissioner Captain Richards would return to Point Roberts on the first of September, 1862, with some trepidation concerning the condition of the monument, which he had heard "was fast going to ruin from having been built during the frost."

"At 12:30 anchd off Roberts Spit and landed. Found the Obelisk in Excellent order. On the sea face is printed, cut in large and painted black—the words, Treaty of Washington, 15 June 1846 . . ."

If Richards was pleased to see his name on the base of the obelisk, he does not say.  As Second Commissioner for the Water Boundary, his job was to survey, and the negotiations were in the hands of Captain JC Prevost.  Captain Richards named many features of the coast with which we are today familiar, but his own name appears nowhere but on this monument.

Broken Stones

As it stands today, the flaws in the panels and base stones of the west face are not so very noticeable, given stains from mortar streaks.   It is still the case that cleaning would highlight the different sizes of  the granite blocks.   Boundary Obelisk - Point Roberts - West Face Panel

Monumental Intentions

Hawkins appeared conscious that the names of the Commissioners would fade into obscurity had he not taken the matter in hand.

"the obelisk will be, in my opinion, a suitable record of the labours of the joint Commissions in carrying into effect the article of the Treaty of Washington of the 15th June 1846 which defines the international Boundary; and that it will permanently mark the terminal point of a Boundary-line which, whatever may be the future fortunes of this Colony, will have a political significance for ages: — while, though now erected under many disadvantages, it would have been very undesirable for this Commission to have closed its operations by only defining this very important point by some mark of a temporary character, to be replaced hereafter by something more substantial."

He  attributed the application of the names of the Commissioners to the suggestion of Archibald Campbell, the American Commissioner, but it is evident the gesture appealed to Hawkins.

However, the Commissioners had nothing to do with the decision that the boundary line would follow along the 49th Parallel. That was assigned them by a clause in the Treaty. The work of the Commissioners on the land boundary was largely that of divvying up the work between American and British surveying parties and deciding how to best mark the line.   Boundary Obelisk  - Point Roberts  North Face

Where the Commissioners were asked to do some real work in  settling the line of the water boundary between Vancouver Island and the mainland—which was unclear in the Treaty–the two Commissioners responsible for coming to an agreement—Capt JC Prevost and Archibald Campbell— could not reach an accord.

The line of the water boundary was eventually settled by decision of arbitrator Kaiser Wilhelm I in October 1872.

  Line of Water Boundary from Point Roberts Obelisk

What lies beneath

The specification called for a concrete pad, 12 feet square and 15 inches thick, and if it is there, it is hidden under the grass.

There are reports that the men working on the monument engraved their names on the inside faces of the granite blocks, and that they placed a coin under each corner of the plinth.

Another unconfirmed story is that a British soldier died while the monument was under construction, and is buried nearby.

The far corner

Over the years, the monument has seen neglect and refurbishment.

The Obelisk has always attracted pilgrims and excursionists, eager to seek out the historic corner piece from a time when Washington Territory bordered on the Crown Colony of British Columbia. 

– New Westminster Public Library photo.

Obelisk visitors from New Westminster   Boundary Obelisk -  Point Roberts - South Face & East Face


Quotations from Captain Richards are from The private journal of Captain G.H. Richards : the Vancouver Island survey (1860-1862), edited by Linda Dorricott & Deirdre Cullon.

Quotations from JS Hawkins and more information from  Point Roberts, U.S.A. : the history of a Canadian enclave, by Richard E. Clark

Additional correspondence and specifications for the obelisk are in the BC Archives.

  An obelisk marks the grave of Ebenezer Brown in the Fraser Cemetery, New Westminster. See earlier post “Of the first class.”   Ebenezer Brown - Grave Obelisk

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