Washington Monument
A History
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Chapter II:


Because of the swamplike nature of the ground at the planned cross-axis of the White House and the U. S. Capitol, the construction engineers located the site for the foundations about 100 yards to the southwest on ground with a rocklike bearing. The original foundation was constructed of blue gneiss rock, placed in large blocks just as they were quarried. In his report on the strength of this rock, Robert Mills, the architect, reported that it was subjected to pressure tests along with the Symington marble, Mills stated.

We subjected also a block of the bluestone (gneisse) of [the valley] Potomac which forms the foundations and backing to the marble of this structure, to the test of pressure and found that a block squaring but 3.372 square inches has a pressure of 13,375 pounds before fracturing. [1]

The blocks were set in a mixture of lime mortar and cement to form a stepped-up truncated pyramid 80 feet square at the base. The foundation extended 7 feet, 8 inches below ground, and 15 feet, 8 inches above. [2] However, it proved to be incapable of supporting the projected height and weight of the monument and was later modified when the project was completed by the Army engineers.


Sunday, July 4, 1848, was the day selected for laying the cornerstone. It was of pure white Symington marble weighing 24,500 pounds and had been dragged through the streets of Washington by workmen and anyone else who could seize a line of the cumbersome vehicle transporting it from the railroad station to the site. The day seemed propitious. It dawned sunny. An early morning light rain had laid the dust of Washington's hot summer and "infused a delicious light freshness" to the atmosphere. The day's mood was enthusiastic without any foreshadowing of the problems to be met and the length of time it would take to complete the memorial.

Fares were reduced for the occasion by railroads and stagecoach lines entering the city. It was estimated that a crowd of 15,000 to 20,000 had gathered near the site and along the parade route from the Capitol. Many had purchased reserved seats in awning—covered bleachers that had been placed around the temporary arch erected over the site. The arch was festive in its decorations of red, white and blue bunting, and tethered to its top sat a huge American bald eagle, said to be over 40 years old, glowering over the crowd. It was the same eagle that had decorated the arch in Alexandria, Va., erected in honor of the French hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, when he made his last visit in 1826 to the Nation he had helped found.

President James K. Polk led the parade to the site and his carriage was followed by those of members of his Cabinet, members of the Senate and House of Representatives, and marching groups of military units and patriotic organizations. The latter included the Marlborough Cavalry, the Eagle artillerists of Baltimore, the Washington Light Infantry, the Marine Band and several volunteer fire companies. The horse-drawn pumpers and hose carts were resplendent with flowers, flags, and bunting. The firemen added to the occasion dressed in the distinctive uniform of each company, ranging from red dress jackets to white pantaloons.

House Speaker Robert C. Winthrop delivered a two-hour oration that was followed by the placing of various mementoes in a zinc case in the cornerstone. These included copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, a portrait of Washington, all national coins then in use from the $10 gold eagle to the half-dime, an American flag, and newspapers from 14 states, including the Valley Whig of Fincastle, Va., the Lycoming Gazette of Williamsport, Pa., and the ladium of Worcester, Mass. Other memorabilia included Maury's Wind and Current Charts of the North Atlantic, the by—laws of Powhatan Tribe No. 1, and a copy of the constitution of the first organized temperance society in America. [3]

The cornerstone was formally laid by Grandmaster Benjamin B. French of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia. He wore the same Masonic apron and sash that had belonged to President Washington, and wielded the same Mason's gavel that had been used by him when he laid the cornerstone of the U. S. Capitol On September 18, 1793. French applied the Masonic square, level, and plumb to the northeast corner and pronounced it sound. He then poured vials of the traditional Masonic symbols over the cornerstone. They consisted of corn, invoking the blessing of plenty upon the Nation; wine, for the joy ever to be found in our broad land; and oil, the healing oil of consolation. In concluding the ceremonies, the Grandmaster said.

This cornerstone is now ready to receive the superstructure which is to rise above it. May no accident attend its erection, and may the capstone, that announces its completion, be laid under circumstances as happy and as favorable as this foundation stone has now been placed. [4]

Despite the fact that the laying of the cornerstone to the Washington Monument was a notable event in its history, its exact location is said to be a mystery to this day. The stone was undoubtedly covered up in the construction of the monument.

New attention was focused upon the project by the cornerstone ceremony and "give a penny" appeals went out to the Nation's three million school children. While donations were to reach a total of $230,000, they still fell far short of Mills' original estimate of $1 million needed to complete the monument.

Several months later on November 1, 1848, Architect Mills established the permanent bench mark for the Washington Monument and informed the Board of Managers of the Washington National Monument Society of it the same day. In his letter, he said:

Architect's Office

November 1, 1848


In order to establish a permanent bench mark, denoting the relative difference of level between it and a certain point on the foundation of the Monument with a view to future operations to determine at proper times whether any settlement had taken place in such foundation. I, on this day, made a series of levels from a point on the top of the third course or step of the foundation, North West angle, to a point of the top of the Meridian stone Monument, near to the tide water (which Stone Monument was planted there by President Jefferson, to determine the intersection of the Meridian line from the centre of the President's House with a line drawn west from the centre of the Capitol) and find the top of said Meridian Stone Monument to be thirteen feet, one inch, and five—eighths of an inch lower than said foundation, at the top of said third course or step. My assistants were M. Dougherty, the Superintendent of the work of the Monument, and Mr. Hepburn, his assistant.

Archt WNM

To Board of Managers
Washington National Monument [5]


The construction of the Washington Monument was begun in the early summer of 1848, by the Washington National Monument Society. The structure, as designed by Robert Mills, was an obelisk 600 feet in height with a flat apex. The base was to be surrounded by a pantheon with a peristyle of marble columns 100 feet high.

Shortly after the beginning of the work, the height of the obelisk was reduced to 500 feet, and the building of the pantheon was deferred to some future date. The foundation of the obelisk was 80 feet square at the bed of the foundation, and this bed was placed 7 feet, 8 inches below the general level of the ground about the structure. The foundation was 23 feet, 4 inches thick, and 58 feet, 6 inches square at its top. It was constructed of large pieces of bluestone gneiss, put in the masonry as they came from the quarry. The interstices between the masses were filled with spawls and a mortar composed largely of fat lime and sand.

The shaft was commenced 55 feet, 1-1/2 inches square at the base. The walls were 15 feet thick. These walls had a facing of large—grained white marble, in blocks of 2 feet rise and from 15 to 18 inches in thickness, sawed without reference to the quarry bed, and rubbed smooth. The walls had a backing of blue gneiss—stone rubble.

By 1854 the obelisk had been built to a height of 152 feet, and by 1856 about four feet more were added, making the total height of the shaft 156 feet, 4 1/8 inches. At its top the sides averaged 48 feet, nine and 5/8 inches in length. The interior well was 25 feet, one inch square. The axis of the shaft leaned one and 3/4 inches to the north. The thickness of the walls at the top was 11 feet, 5/16 inches. The weight of this obelisk and its foundation was about 31,152 tons, and the cost of the structure was close to $300,000. [6]


Of interest is the scale of wages which were paid during the first construction phase of the monument. According to the Treasurer's records of payrolls for the period 1848—56, the following is the breakdown of the 57 workmen then employed and their pay scale for December 1849: [7]


Stone masons15 $2.00 (1)
1.75 (14)
Master mason
Stone cutters2 1.75
Master cutter

Riggers1 1.25
Laborers33 1.00
Watchmen2 1.001 day, 1 night

The number of workmen employed daily naturally varied with the progress of the work, the amount of materials on hand, and the availability of funds.

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Last Updated: 18-Nov-2003