February 19, 2018, is the Federal holiday celebrated as George Washington’s Birthday. Today’s post comes from John Lockwood, a long-time federal employee who has written numerous articles, many for the National Archives.
Some time back, I was busy working on an article about how in 1854 Pope Pius IX donated a gift stone to be installed in the wall of the indoor stairway of the Washington Monument. Although the Monument was still unfinished at that time, other such stones had already been added, beginning with Alabama’s in 1849.
Unfortunately, before it could be put into place, the Pope stone was stolen by members of the (anti-Catholic) Know Nothing Party, so named because any outsider who asked about their activities received the answer, “I know nothing.” The Know Nothing members then dumped the stone into the nearby Potomac River. A replacement Pope stone was later added in 1982.
This got me thinking about other stones that may have been lost, rejected, or replaced. To start with, were there any? A grand total of (so far) 193 stones have made it into the Monument, many of them during the early construction phase of 1848–1854, when the project finally ran out of donations from a mostly reluctant public. The project was resumed a quarter-century later by the federal government.
It was high time to visit the National Archives—and again, and again, as it turned out. The ever-reliable Record Group 42 (Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital) awaited, which has records devoted to building the Washington Monument. Several of the RG 42 Monument listings involved just such gift stones to the Monument.
RG 42 listed dozens of “Entries,” or boxes of material, covering most of the Monument’s history. The Entries contained all sort of useful old papers, such as advertisements, telegrams, yellowed newspaper clippings, and most useful of all, letters to and from the Monument staff.
It turned out, eventually, that at least 28 gift stone proposals in RG 42 described stones that are not in the Monument today—lost gift stones of the Washington Monument. Entry 439 was the record holder, at 14. Other such Entries included 97, 428, 430, 442, 450, and 493.
Could there be others? Next stop, the U.S. Library of Congress, periodical section. Repeated visits uncovered even more references for lost stones. The Library had dozens of old newspaper titles on microfilm. I used computer search engines to find some of them, such as ProQuest, and Ancestry.com—if you list your ancestor’s name as “Washington Monument,” reams of data come up.
I also searched laboriously by patiently scanning newspaper titles not listed in search engines, especially in the 1848–1854 phase, and on either side of December 6, 1884, when the Monument was completed, and similarly with February 21, 1885, when it was dedicated. The newspapers contained many articles about the Monument’s complete history.
Some lost stones were rejected upon arrival by the Monument authorities. Some were rejected because they were in poor condition; others may have advertised their senders more than honor George Washington; and still others were rejected for no apparent reason. I came across a few references claiming that the Monument staff buried some of the rejected stones in the hill later added around the Monument.
One reference, The Grand Rapid Herald, of Michigan, in the November 17, 1899 issue, wrote of 14 or 15 stones “rotting away” in a storeroom beneath the Monument.
Other stones may have been lost in transit. There were a few stones from Nevada and California, for instance, that were rich in gold and silver ore. Did they have trouble reaching Washington because of their value?
Several stones were given to the Smithsonian Institution, but a trip there found that the museum no longer had them. Their records indicated that the Smithsonian had thrown them out sometime before 1911.
Still other stones were lost for no apparent reason. Perhaps some never got beyond the talking stage. Also, probably not every stone proposal made it into the local newspaper in question, so some lost stones are not recorded at all.
And then there were the vandals and the souvenir hunters to be considered. When a stone arrived at the Monument grounds, they were stored in an outdoor wooden shed, a long and narrow structure named the “Lapidarium.” Some of its stones were added to the Monument at once, but apparently not all.
Also, during the 25-year gap on construction, the stones just sat in there the whole time, prey to anybody. For instance, I found one reference to a pile of 13 bricks from Washington’s birthplace, at Pope’s Creek, Virginia. It would be so easy for visitors to the Lapidarium to slip one into a coat pocket. At any rate, not a single such brick is in the Monument today.
So far there are an estimated 196 lost stones for the Washington Monument (the 13 bricks count as 1 item), from all sources, versus 193 gift stones that are there. “Estimated” is the key word here. A few of the sources were vague or brief, and one has to be careful to avoid repetition as well. Sometimes it’s a judgment call whether to add a particular example to the lost list, and the doubtful ones are usually not recorded.
There is one thing that the accepted and lost stones have in common, besides the great number of each, and that is their variety. Donors included such groups as the Masons, the International Order of Odd Fellows, private businesses, labor unions, schools and universities, state and local governments, churches, fraternities—and even patent medicine companies, none of which made the cut.
There were even stones sent by foreign countries. Today’s Monument has gift stones from places as diverse as China, twice; Japan twice; Greece twice; plus Turkey, Egypt, Siam (Thailand), Wales, and Germany. The lost stones included specimens from France, twice; Ireland, twice; Germany twice; Russia; Chile; Switzerland; Great Britain; and Egypt again.
George Washington and the American republic experiment seem to have been admired by many people, at home and around the world.
Interested in learning more about the Washington Monument? Read John Lockwood’s 2016 Prologue article, “The Men—and the Women—Who Built the Washington Monument.”
3 thoughts on “The Lost Gift Stones of the Washington Monument”
Was the stone the Papacy tried to donate ever recovered from the river it was thrown into ?