*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The tallest stone structure in the world and one of its most recognizable, the Washington Monument welcomed its first official visitors when it opened on October 9, 1888. More than forty years after the project began — through budget issues, political wrangling and the Civil War — the 555-foot-tall obelisk welcomed curious tourists hoping for a view of Washington, DC.
In the years following the American War for Independence, the idea of honoring George Washington in some formal way came from many corners. After the soldier from Virginia marshaled the ragtag army through the conflict and secured victory for the young republic, it seemed appropriate — the Continental Congress even went so far as to suggest a statue of Washington atop his horse be placed outside the final home for the legislative body. Once the former general was elected the first President of the United States, many argued a monument was necessary.
Within days of Washington’s death in 1799, a Congressional committee headed by John Marshall, a fellow Virginian, believed the national hero ought to be entombed in the city bearing his name. Fierce disagreements arose, with the Congress of 1801 eventually rejecting the idea of any monument to or celebration of Washington outright — Jeffersonian Republicans were against the idea of elevating any leader to such status.
It would be another 30 years before the Washington Monument would find enough concerned citizens to give the project new life. Beginning in 1832, the group started taking donations to honor the man many felt most responsible for the American nation. Pulling together $28,000, the Washington National Monument Society selected Robert Mills’ proposal after a contest to find a design “unparalleled in the world, and commensurate with the gratitude, liberty, and patriotism of the people by whom it is to be erected.”
Elegant and imposing, Mills’ conception had a central obelisk with a ring of tall columns around the base. A statue of Washington would grace the top, with sculptures of other Revolutionary heroes woven in amongst the Doric columns. Estimated to cost more than $1 million, the design required well over ten times the money raised by the Society. Hoping work would spur more donations, the board approved the project and laid the cornerstone on July 4, 1848.
Six years later, the project came to a halt when funding dried up. States from all over the union were sending commemorative stones, but Congress found themselves unwilling to commit money to the project as political maneuvering undermined the Society. The “Know-Nothings,” an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic group, took over the leadership in 1854 as a way to attempt to ensure it was “American” enough and Congress withdrew $200,000 earmarked to restart construction. The site would remain untouched for twenty years, surviving the Civil War with little damage or decay.
By the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, in 1876, Congress — and many Americans — felt it was time to see the monument completed. Receiving the $200,000 promised before, engineers checked to ensure the foundation was still sound while others submitted new designs. When the idea of sticking to a simple obelisk surfaced, legend has it Mills claimed it would be “a stalk of asparagus.”
Despite criticism from a number of angles both Congress and the Society agreed a simple Egyptian obelisk would be sufficient. Lt. Colonel Thomas Casey became foreman and got the process restarted in 1879. Making the best of a difficult situation, he and the rest of the US Army Corps of Engineers finished the 40,000-ton tower on December 6, 1884. The tallest structure in the world at the time, it would officially open on October 9, 1888.
Now under the control of the National Park Service, the monument welcomes over 800,000 visitors every year to take the 70-second ride to the top.
Also On This Day:
1760 – The Russian Army movies into Berlin during the Seven Years’ War
1776 – Mission San Francisco de Asis is founded, eventually becoming San Francisco, California
1936 – Boulder Dam begin generating electricity for the city of Los Angeles, 266 miles away
1981 – France ends capital punishment
1999 – Supersonic spy plane the SR-71 takes its final flight