The Building of the Washington Monument

Washington Monument, Photo by David Bjorgen

Washington Monument, Photo by David Bjorgen

On December 6, 1884, the Washington Monument was finally completed. The word “finally” is appropriate since construction on the monument ended 85 years after George Washington’s death.

While Washington was still alive many people wanted to dedicate statues to him, but he declined. He thought the country should spend its money on other things. Shortly after Washington’s death, John Marshall proposed a memorial to the first president. The memorial was to be built in the style of the ancient Egyptian tombs with a pyramid serving as Washington’s burial place. However, Congress could not agree on the design.

Thirty-seven years later John Marshall, who was now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, continued to fight for a memorial. In 1832 the Washington National Monument Society was formed. The society decided to hold a competition for the best design while collecting donations from citizens across the country.

Designs came in from around the world. The society required only that each design be “durable, simple, and grand.” Finally they chose a design by Robert Mills, a church architect from Charleston. Mills’ design included a temple with an Egyptian obelisk on top. Inside a colossal statue of Washington and a museum about Washington’s life were to be placed. Because the design was so expensive ($1 million in the 19th century), the society decided to start with the obelisk first.

The monument’s cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848 with the same trowel that Washington used for the cornerstone of the capital. In a crowd of over 20,000 people that day were three future presidents, including a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

To raise money for the monument states were encouraged to donate commemorative stones to its interior. Even foreign countries donated stones to show their respect for the Revolutionary war hero and president. A controversy arose, however, when the Pope tried to donate a stone. Anti-Catholic groups stalled the construction.

During the Civil War the monument was again abandoned. Cattle grazed around it and soldiers practiced maneuvers in its shadow.

Congress decided to resume construction during the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. All the arguments about the design resurfaced. Congress was still short on money. This time, however, the US Army Corps of Engineers under Lieut. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey was put in charge of the construction.

The country’s anniversary made both Congress and Casey eager to finish the monument. The design was scaled back. It was decided that the temple would not be constructed–only the obelisk. Despite these cost-cutting measures Casey still had several issues to deal with. For example, the scaffolding was rotted and there were flaws in the foundation of the monument. Casey’s crew reinforced the foundation with concrete. He also carried out the original plan to include the 193 memorial stones donated by states and countries into the interior walls.

The outside stones for the monument presented other problem for Lieut. Casey. The quarry used for the initial construction was no longer available. The builders ended up using two additional quarries with varying colors of stone. Today visitors can see three slightly different colored stones from the three different quarries on the outside of the monument.

On December 6, 1884 Lt. Col. Casey supervised as the capstone was brought out through a window and set on top of the monument. The aluminum tip made by Tiffany‘s was put into place by the lieutenant himself. At 555 feet and 5 inches the monument was the tallest structure in the world. However, the Eiffel Tower surpassed it the following year. Nevertheless, it is still the tallest structure in Washington DC and serves as a landmark for everyone who visits the National Mall.

The Washington Monument’s exterior and interior have endured quite a bit over the years. For example, in 2011 an earthquake struck 90 miles southwest of Washington DC. Though the monument was significantly damaged it was repaired successfully. The durability of the monument was anticipated at its dedication. During the ceremony, a speech by Robert Winthrop who had attended the opening ceremony in 1848 was read by Rep. John Long of Massachusetts. He said, “the storms of winter must blow and beat upon it…the lightnings of heaven may scar and blacken it. An earthquake may shake its foundations…but the character which it commemorates and illustrates is secure.”

Independence Day and The History of Fireworks

Ever since the first anniversary of Independence Day, Americans celebrated the holiday with fireworks. When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, John Adams predicted that “this day will be celebrated…with parade, guns, bonfires, and fireworks, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” The newly created United States was not the first country to use fireworks for special occasions, however.

Many historians believe that the Chinese invented fireworks by accident approximately 2,000 years ago. One legend claims that a cook mixed charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter together (all common kitchen ingredients back then). The combination of these chemicals created gunpowder—the key ingredient in fireworks. Eventually someone stuffed gunpowder into bamboo shoots and threw them into the fire. The result was a large BOOM, and the first fireworks were invented. The Chinese used the loud noises to scare away evil spirits.

The explorer Marco Polo may have brought gunpowder back to Europe in the late 1200s after visiting China. In medieval England, using gunpowder to create fireworks became popular as a way to celebrate military victories. Later, they were used during various special events, such as King Henry VII’s wedding day.

By the 1500s, some Englishmen made a living by setting up fireworks displays to entertain audiences. These experts were called firemasters. Their assistants, known as Green Men for their green leaf caps and green costumes which helped them blend in with the displays, were responsible for setting off the fireworks. Green men also told jokes to crowds and tried to keep people from getting too close to the displays. Despite their humor, the Green Men were always in danger. They could be injured or killed if the fireworks failed to rise into the air or went off at the wrong time.

Fireworks experts from various European countries brought their knowledge to America. They quickly became part of Fourth of July celebrations, though some people complained about the noise. On July 4, 1866, a man living in Germantown Pennsylvania wrote, “July 4th is the most hateful day of the year, when the birth of democracy is celebrated by license and noise. All last night and all of today, the sound of guns and firecrackers around us never stopped.”

Throughout the early 1900s, many American adults and children suffered injuries or died from lighting fireworks. To prevent injuries to non-professionals, many states created laws that made setting off fireworks illegal. Professional displays like the one at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., however, are legal everywhere.

U.S. Independence Day Celebrations

By now your family has probably made plans for the July Fourth holiday. Maybe you have a tradition of seeing the fireworks display in your community, or having a barbeque or picnic. Colonial Americans also celebrated the Fourth, although they did so somewhat differently than we do today. One year after the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia celebrated Independence Day with bells, bonfires, and fireworks. Music and speeches were part of the festivities, too. Independence Day did not become a nationwide holiday immediately, however. Massachusetts became the first state to make the Fourth of July a statewide holiday in 1781.

Independence Day celebrations gained popularity in the 1800s, especially during the war of 1812 when the U.S. fought Britain again. By the time the 50th anniversary of independence came, however, some people expressed concern that the occasion would not be dignified. Although there were no television ads promoting retail store sales like today, people worried that the Fourth’s semi-centennial would be observed “in the usual way, that is, by frying chickens, firing away damaged powder, or fuddling our noses over tavern wine.” Instead the states made plans for dinners, parades, and readings of the Declaration. In 1870, Congress made July 4th a federal holiday.

Since the 1800s, the Fourth of July became an occasion for family barbeques and fireworks displays that grew increasingly elaborate. Some families, however, have fun but also have traditions that emphasize the importance of the holiday to our nation. For example, the family of Liz Seymour gathers for a family reunion each year on Cape Cod. After swimming and enjoying good food, her uncle brings out a copy of the Declaration of Independence and passes it around so each person, including the kids, reads a passage or two.

However your family decides to celebrate on July 4th, take a moment to be grateful for the freedoms we have thanks to those who signed the Declaration of Independence and those who continue to fight for the U.S. on battlefields across the world.