Washington Monument
A History
NPS Logo

Chapter III:


As the Washington Monument Society reached the end of its resources, appeals went out to the Nation for contributions to continue the construction of the Washington Monument. In lieu of money, the State of Alabama offered to present a decorative stone to the Society that could be used in the monument. The Society seized upon the idea and thereupon invited other States, municipalities, and associations to join with Alabama in contributing and appropriately inscribing a "block of marble or other durable stone, a product of its soil" of a size approximating that of the marble blocks used in the construction of the monument, viz, 4 feet in length, 2 feet in height, and from 12 to 18 inches in thickness. Later, this invitation to contribute memorial blocks of stone was extended to foreign governments. [1]


Among the stones received from foreign governments was one from Pope Pius IX. It was a block of historic marble from the Temple of Concord in Rome and was approximately 3 feet long, 10 inches thick and 18 inches high. The gift infuriated the American Party, a splinter group popularly known as the "Know-Nothing." The party was hostile to foreign-born Americans and to the Catholic Church. The Know-Nothings vowed that the Pope's Stone, as it came to be known, would never become a part of the Washington Monument.

On the night of Monday, March 6, 1854, between the hours of one and two a.m., as the night watchman was standing guard alongside the incomplete monument which by then had reached a height of 156 feet, a group of four to ten men rushed out of the darkness, surrounded his shack and piled stones that were scattered throughout the swamp—like area against his door. The intruders then stole the Pope's Stone from the lapidarium on the grounds, loaded it into a handcart, and trundled it from the scene.

The watchman could not explain to the investigating committee of the Society why he waited almost two hours before sounding the alarm, or why he failed to drive off the intruders with his shotgun. He was fired from his job by the Society and $100 reward was posted for return of the stone and for information leading to the arrest of the culprits. No arrests were made and the stone was never recovered. The incident disgusted many Americans and contributions took a nosedive.

It was believed for years that the stone was dumped into the Potomac River near Long Bridge, but it was never found. Some years ago a report was published that it was buried at the intersection of P and 22nd Streets near the border of Georgetown. Investigation of this rumor by an enterprising reporter who interviewed a work gang of the Potomac Electric Light and Power Company, then digging in the vicinity, failed to uncover either the Pope's Stone or any further information on the subject. [2] One of the most current rumors, particularly among Catholic tourists visiting the monument, is that the Pope's stone was smashed by the Know-Nothings and that the fragments were ground up in the mortar used for setting the stones of the monument.


In a desperate effort to continue the work of constructing the monument, the Washington National Monument Society appealed to Congress for funds. On February 22, 1855, Congress voted to appropriate $200,000 for continuance of the work. The night before, however, a group of about 750 members of the Know-Nothings, many of whom had joined the Washington National Monument Society, called a meeting. They voted 17 of their own officers into the Society, and the next morning announced that they were in possession of the Washington Monument. Congress reacted immediately and tabled the resolution thus killing effectively the appropriation. Twenty—one years were to pass before Congress was to vote any funds for the completion of the monument. Two weeks after this coup, on March 7, 1855, another blow fell upon the Society when the architect, Robert Mills, died in his Capitol Hill home. And for almost three years, the anomalous situation existed of there being two Washington National Monument Societies until the Know-Nothings in 1858 surrendered all records to the original Society.

In the meantime, however, construction of the monument was continued by the Know-Nothings in charge of the project. They succeeded in laying only 13 courses—26 feet—of masonry, consisting of marble that had been rejected by the master mason. This 26 feet of marble was later removed from the monument when Congress assigned responsibility for its completion to the Engineer Corps, U. S. Army, in 1876.

During the two months preceding the coup by the Know-Nothings, only $695 had been raised by the original Washington National Monument Society. The Know-Nothings raised only $51.66 during the succeeding months of 1855.

Two years later in 1857, the Know-Nothing Party collapsed and its leaders returned possession of the monument to the original Society, together with a treasury of but $285.00. To prevent a repetition of the debacle, legislation was enacted by Congress. By the Act of February 22, 1859, approved by the President on the 26th of the same month, the Washington National Monument Society was incorporated "for the purpose of completing the erection now in progress of a great National Monument to the memory of Washington at the seat of the Federal Government." [3]

Named as incorporators in the charter were men distinguished in the life of the Nation such as Winfield Scott, Walter Jones, John J. Abert, James Kearney, Thomas Carbery, Peter Force, William A. Bradley, Philip R. Fendall, Walter Lenox, Matthew Maury (as survivors of the grantees of the site under the grant made by President Polk in 1848), and Jonathan B. H. Smith, William W. Seaton, Elisha Whittlesey, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, Thomas H. Crawford, William W. Corcoran, and John Carroll Brent. [4]

Despite the mounting shadows of the Civil War, post office collection points were set up and solicitations made at election polls when Abraham Lincoln was voted into his first term as President in 1860. Overall results were disappointing. Only $88.52 was raised throughout the nation in that year, on including 48¢ from Washington's native Virginia and 15¢ from Mississippi. [5]


At the outbreak of the Civil War, the monument still stood at its 176-foot height, and in the words of Mark Twain "looked like a hollow, over-sized chimney." Construction was thus halted in 1861 when the shaft was barely one-third completed. It was not to be taken up again until 15 years later in 1876, on the eve of the centennial celebration of the Nation's founding, when public shame swept the Nation and the Congress over the failure to complete this memorial to its outstanding hero.

During the Civil War the unfinished stub stood untouched. The grounds surrounding it were turned into an open grazing pen and cattle, sheep, and pigs—mobile provisions for the Union armies—grazed at its base. A slaughter house stood in the background. As a matter of fact it was known as the "Washington National Monument Cattle Yard," as shown by the illustrations and drawings for this section of the report. It was also a remount depot, and the grounds surrounding it provided excellent camping facilities and maneuver areas for Union troops temporarily stationed in the Nation's Capital prior to their commitment to combat.

After Appomattox, despite continued efforts by the Society, about the only things raised on behalf of the monument were the periodic outcries of prominent politicians. [6] However, several states beginning with New York voted appropriations to aid in the completion of the monuments. State funds were offered on a matching—fund basis, but the Society was unable to take advantage of the offer. The Nation's resources were devoted, on both sides to either preserving the Union or destroying it. And President Lincoln did not intend that the latter event would occur.

Following the Civil War, the swamp—like grounds of the Washington Monument became known as "Murderer's Row" as they became the hangout on of escapees, deserters and all other types of flotsam of the war.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 18-Nov-2003