The Washington Monument took more than 40 years to build.
Planning the Monument
As one might expect, circa 1832 Congress planned to commemorate the man whose name became the nation’s capital. Dozens of ideas were proposed and debated. The arguments went on for weeks.
What our second and third generation of statesmen had in mind was a simple monument. Nothing to focus on a great general or a wise statesman. George Washington’s reputation was singular, and should stand alone.
When the idea of a great obelisk was proposed, popularized by Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in the early part of the 19th Century, there was agreement. Plain, simple, imposing and towering over the city at 555 feet.
Funding the Monument
Congress, of course, needs the means to pay for the items/programs it commissions. This is nothing new, nor was it new then. But the wisdom of our elder statesmen had a plan to offset much of the cost:
They requested “donations” of specially engraved granite blocks to be used in erecting the great obelisk. (This is like the “buy a brick” campaigns many local buildings use today.)
It worked. Every state and territory pledged a donation. There weren’t that many in the 1830s. Most large cities signed on. Organizations, trade guilds, and indeed any group that could raise the money for an engraved granite stone pledged their contribution of a block varying in size, but all weighing more than a ton. Stone masons were doing a booming business! There were also “donations” from foreign countries, all eager to cement cordial relationships with the USA, now past 50 years old.
Naturally this took a good deal of time: purchasing suitable (the best!) granite, determining the proper inscription, finding a master carver, and finally shipping the huge block to the obelisk site in Washington.
For fifteen years, around 200 hundred huge specially inscribed granite blocks began appearing. Happily, granite does not rot or erode, and can withstand just about whatever nature cares to throw at it (maybe).
The Ground Breaking Event & Politics
Finally, in July, 1848, a ground breaking ceremony was held to get the project off the ground – literally. President James K. Polk was on hand to lift the first shovel. The speeches and bands and church bells all performed their assigned roles, and the Washington Monument was formally underway. Hundreds of dignitaries showed up, surrounded by hundreds of granite stones. The venerable Dolley Madison was on hand to witness the great occasion.
But it would take more than 30 years before it was completed. It got less than half way up, and stopped. Part of that was money. Part of that was the Civil War. And part of that was political. By the early 1850s, donations trickled to a halt.
The Pope’s Stone
The 1850s was a turbulent time in the US, destined to become even more turbulent as the decade wore on. In addition to slavery and sectionalism, there was a growing cadre of xenophobic citizens calling themselves the “American” party, but nicknamed the “Know-Nothing’s.” The nickname came from their members, who, if challenged, were instructed to claim ignorance, i.e. “I know nothing.”
The Know-Nothing’s were violently opposed to the flood of starving Irish immigrants escaping a great potato famine in Ireland. According to the “Knows” they threatened “American” jobs. Then too, most of those Irish immigrants were Catholic. Papists. Another perceived threat.
One of the commemorative Washington Monument stones sent from afar came from Pope Pius IX, who had chosen a 3-foot marble block from the ancient Temple of Concord in Rome. It was inscribed in Latin: Rome to America.
Denouncing the Stone
In 1854, a group of the Know Nothing’s decided it was anti-American to have a stone (gift or not) representing the papacy.
On March 6, some of their members, perhaps fortified by liquid courage, found the offensive granite block and managed to cart it away. They proudly let it be known that the Pope’s Stone was no longer to be a part of the monument, but when questioned, the perpetrators “knew nothing.”
Outraged citizens investigated, and searched along the Potomac. A handsome reward of $500 was offered for information leading to the culprits! Naturally, nobody “knew anything” and no one was apprehended.
Fast Forward 30 Years and Then Some
Politics, the Civil War and assorted other needs took priority for decades. Finally, once the Gilded Age had settled in for a long spell, Americans decided the Washington Monument needed to be completed to get rid of the half-finished eyesore in the middle of the city. In 1876, General-President Grant decided it was an opportune time. It was finally completed in 1884, and formally opened to the public in 1888.
In 1883, an anonymous saloon-keeper contacted the Washington Post and confessed that late at night on March 5, 1854, some “Know-Nothing” members (one of which he was), drew lots, went to the site, tied up the night watchman at gunpoint, carted the stone to the Potomac where a waiting boat near the Long Bridge rowed it mid-river. Then they pushed it over the side. The saloon keeper also mentioned that on the way, many of the men had broken off small chunks of the stone to keep as prizes. Then the anonymous “confessor” directed them to a point where it could be located. They dredged and dredged, but no luck.
However, a decade later, when construction for new piers on the river was underway, lo and behold! They found its remnants. But despite dozens of “urban legends,” nobody was ever discovered to “know anything” about whodunit!
In 1982, Pope John Paul II presented a replacement marble stone. It is now housed in the Washington Monument, with all the others. You can see it.
Carpenter, Frank G. – Carp’s Washington – McGraw Hill, 1960