The Forgotten History Of The First Washington Monument That Most Americans Aren't Aware Exists
If we asked you to picture the Washington Monument, you'd no doubt dream up an image of the 555-foot-tall obelisk in Washington, D.C. And you wouldn't normally be wrong... but in this case, you are. There is actually another Washington Monument that's even older than the famous tower on the National Mall. This landmark happens to be in Maryland — and this is the history most people have never heard.
An obscure monument to a president
The Washington Monument we're talking about should be better known, because it's the first structure of its kind. No other monument before it had been built with the explicit purpose of honoring the first President of the United States. Yet its existence has been overshadowed by its more famous cousin in Washington, D.C., and it took decades for people to really appreciate its importance.
Not a looker
Perhaps this is because, when compared to the better-known Washington Monument, it's not much to look at. It's certainly a lot shorter than the famous Washington Monument, and it's nowhere near as sleek and shiny. But — as your mother no doubt told you as a kid — you should never judge a book by its cover. And the story of this Washington Monument is one for the ages.
A monument is born
The idea of a monument dedicated to George Washington first came about almost immediately after the president died in 1799. But the first structure to be built was not supposed to be in Maryland. The United States Congress initially gave a big thumbs-up to one in Washington, D.C. — but the plans for this larger monument quickly got very complicated.
A monumental delay
The problem with the D.C. Washington Monument was that nobody could agree on what it should look like. On the one hand, the Federalists put forward a plan for a grand structure. But on the other side of the debate, the Republicans weren't fans of that particular design. The delay got so bad that people didn't even start working on the now-famous Washington Monument until 1848 — almost 50 years after George Washington died.
A scrappy start-up
This incredible hold-up allowed plenty of time for a group of regular citizens to swoop in and steal the government's thunder. These people were the townsfolk of Boonsboro, Maryland, and they agreed to build their monument in July 1825. According to the town's local newspaper, the Torch Light, the Maryland General Assembly said it would pay for a “monument or statue to the memory of Washington” using leftover money from state lotteries.
Building a monument — by hand
The residents of Boonsboro didn't have to wait for almost 50 years while the government debated the design. Instead, they started — and finished — their monument just two years after getting approval from the Maryland General Assembly. Citizens laid the groundwork of their structure on July 3, 1827. This allowed them to get going on the actual monument the very next day.
The work begins
The townsfolk were at the site at about 7:30 a.m. on July 4, 1827. The spot they'd chosen for their monument was an area of South Mountain, and a citizen called William Bell wrote an account of their work for the Torch Light. He described the men as having a "patriotic purpose" and being "actuated by a spirit of zeal and ardor" for the work that lay ahead.
All in a day's work
According to Bell, it only took the townsfolk until 4:00 p.m. on July 4 for the work to be completed. "All... seemed influenced by a vigorous principle of emulation that promised a speedy termination of that day's labor," Bell wrote. He described the workers as being "from that class of society who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow" and seemed proud that they had focused so diligently on the task at hand.
A hearty lunch break
Bell described how at 12:00 p.m. a reverend — "a gentleman of the revolutionary period" — gave a stirring speech to the workers. Then, an hour later, the citizens stopped to enjoy "a cold collation," or a light meal. But Bell was quick to explain that the food was nothing fancy. He wrote, "We enjoyed more heartfelt satisfaction in partaking of our simple fare than the most costly or high seasoned dishes would have afforded." Why? Because they loved their work so much.
A fitting end to their labor
When the workers wrapped up their work at 4:00 p.m., one of the Boonsboro residents stood on the monument's steps and read the Declaration of Independence. This was followed by veterans of the American Revolutionary War firing off "several salutes." "We all returned to town in good order," confirmed Bell. And the writer was clearly proud of the monument the men had constructed.
A fine sight
Bell explained that the monument was located along "the brow" of South Mountain, reached by traversing "a rugged path." "But the view will afford a rich compensation for the labor," Bell insisted. The townsfolk also commemorated their structure with a marble slab inscribed, "Erected in memory of Washington, July 4th, 1827, by the Citizens of Boonsborough." Yet there's no doubt that this was otherwise a no-frills monument.
Small and imperfectly formed
This Washington Monument was only 15 feet tall. Its slender shape was apparently designed to look like a cannon from the Revolutionary War — but it's been more accurately described as a jug or a milk bottle. The structure was simply built out of rocks, too, with no mortar used to secure them in place. Bell had no delusions about the monument's appearance, though.
An honest evaluation
"As it was raised in much haste, we cannot boast the regular accuracy of perfect beauty, yet it possesses both solidity and durability, two important qualities," Bell noted in the Torch Light. "It has such strength as I think will preserve it for ages." He confessed that the monument was "rude and naked of all the charms of architecture" — but felt it had "an ever-blooming spirit diffused even through the dry walls" that compensated for any lack of elegance.
An everlasting tribute
Bell continued, "We do not calculate that when finished, it will give this town immortal glory, but we do sincerely hope it will be the means of stirring up the fading gratitude of the people, and bring back to their forgetful memories in fresh and glowing colors the peculiar circumstances of gratitude, under which we are placed both to God and man." And Bell insisted that the monument wasn't simply to satisfy the workers' egos.
Fortune and glory
"This is no boast of vain glory," he wrote, "for as long as gratitude and love of virtue are acknowledged among the cardinal virtues, so long shall we delight in revering the name of the virtuous Washington." And to be fair to Bell and Boonsboro, this monument to Washington was unique precisely because it was built by a community. But despite Bell's hopes, the structure did not stand the test of time.
A ruin for the Civil War
The unsound structure had decreased in size to about 5 feet tall by the time the Civil War started 34 years later. Yet it's interesting that the ruined monument was visited by some noted figures during the conflict. In 1862, for example, the Confederate generals Edward Porter Alexander and Robert E. Lee were in the area for the Battle of South Mountain.
A general disappointment
Alexander wrote in his memoir that they noticed "a small party of people on what seemed to be some sort of old tower on the mountain top." He added, "There were some indications that it might be a signal party of the enemy sending messages of our approach." So Alexander set out with eight soldiers to capture the men who dared to cross them. But he was to be disappointed.
A viewing party
Alexander and his men made the "hard, hot climb" to the tower only to find that the small party gathered there were not enemies at all. In fact, they had just climbed the mountain to get a better look at the battle. "I was quite disgusted at the peaceful character of my capture and left them after seeing that the position gave no valuable view of the enemy's ground," Alexander wrote.
Finally put to some use
Had the generals approached the Washington Monument just a few days later, though, they might have found what they were seeking. Following the Battle of Antietam, the small structure did start to be used as a signal station for Union soldiers. This was because the Confederates cut off other means of communication — giving the Union no other choice but to use flag movements from the monument to pass along messages.
Rebuilding from the ground up
Fortunately, the Washington Monument didn't remain in a state of disrepair forever. In 1882 the Independent Order of Odd Fellows put up the money to fix it. The repairers did more than just restore the structure to its former glory, though. When the work was completed in August 1882, the monument had new white walls and a lookout. But this wasn't to last.
A short-lived victory
The monument was once again in a terrible state in 1906. There are two possible reasons why the structure was fast becoming a ruin. One theory is that a Boonsboro resident blasted the monument with explosives after discovering his daughters were meeting boys at the site. Another story — perhaps more likely — is that the observation tower was struck by lightning in the early 1900s. Things hadn't improved a decade later, either.
A dynamite solution
In 1916 newspaper the Herald-Mail revealed that the monument had been "blown out" by persons unknown. “It is supposed that mountaineers steal dynamite and do it out of amusement, however hard it may be for people of sane minds to see fun in such actions,” the publication reported. But despite the damage that had been done to the monument, it would be another 18 years before any repair work started.
A sad 100-year celebration
That meant the monument was little more than an "almost shapeless" pile of rocks when the structure turned 100 years old in 1927. “The rough pile stands today almost a forgotten sentinel on the road to the West, the road taken by so many thousands of pioneer feet since its erection,” the Herald-Mail reported at the time. “It has watched the world pass on unheeding for a century.”
There were two main barriers to restoring the Washington Monument to its former glory. The first was the inability to raise the money needed for the repairs. And the second was that the structure apparently didn't mean much to anybody who didn't live in or near Boonsboro. But things started to change in 1922 when the Washington County Historical Society bought the structure and its land and then, 12 years later, offered it to the State of Maryland for further development.
A new state park
The local authority also bought an additional ten acres of land around the site and decided to make the area a state park. The Morning Herald newspaper revealed that officials planned to fix up the monument so that it resembled its original jug design from the 1800s. This design would also allow people to "take in the beautiful landscape spread for miles beneath it."
A bomb-proof monument
The reconstruction of the monument between 1934 and 1936 was no half-measure. For starters, the construction crew used mortar to bind the bricks together — along with as much sand and cement as was necessary. The state also paid for a caretaker's house, a picnic shelter, a new trail leading to the monument, and a shelter beside the trail. When all was said and done, the monument was in better shape than ever.
In fact, the Washington Monument was now twice as tall as its original construction. The newly-restored structure measures 30 feet high and 27 feet wide at its largest point. There is a 3-foot-wide spiral staircase to allow visitors to ascend to the top, too. But work on the monument wasn't over yet.
In the years since the Washington Monument was restored, more attention has been lavished upon it than ever before. The original marble cornerstone was found in 1952 and 20 years after that, the monument found itself on the National Register of Historic Places. More recently, Boonsboro celebrated 225 years of its town with a rededication ceremony for the Washington Monument in 2017.
An historic reenactment
The event was so popular that over 200 people gathered in Boonsboro to attend. They climbed the footpath to the top of South Mountain to see the historic monument. The Sons of the American Revolution were on hand to put on a reenactment with traditional music, military uniforms, and musket firing. So we're expecting big things when the monument turns 200 years old in 2027.
Under the other Washington Monument
But people fascinated by the lesser-known monument's history were in for a treat when laborers recently uncovered a secret beneath its more famous cousin. Yes, an extraordinary relic had been concealed underneath the other Washington Monument column – and that discovery shines a real light on America’s past.
Strangely enough, the workers had been placing a septic tank into the ground when they made their find. But perhaps they shouldn’t have been too surprised to uncover their treasure. You see, they were working on the side of the monument that’s first hit by the sun in the morning. And based on Masonic ways of thinking, that’s precisely where you’d expect to discover something special hidden away.
An unassuming block
What had the laborers found? Well, to begin with, a granite block in the ground. That may not sound all that exciting, but don’t be fooled! This was actually the cornerstone of the monument. And as it happens, there was definitely more to it than immediately met the eye.
Mind you, Lance Humphries was pleased just to hear about the block. He’s the executive director of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, which seeks to maintain the region’s landmarks. And Humphries justified his excitement by saying to Baltimore’s WBAL, “It’s well known that they laid a cornerstone, but they never actually mentioned where the cornerstone was actually placed in the building. So, it’s pretty neat to have found it.”
The laborers may not have been so thrilled, but they still recognized the cornerstone’s importance. Works on the site were paused, then, so that they could retrieve it manually. And after the guys pulled the block to the surface, they noticed something very strange about the stone. Curiously, it had been hollowed out.
But the block wasn’t empty. To the contrary, in fact. Bundled inside were relics from a distant age – making the whole thing a sort of time capsule. Yes, people from the past had added items they thought would be of interest to future generations. And after two centuries of lying in obscurity, this stone container was about to reveal its centuries-old secrets.
A unique connection
Needless to say, the world in which this cornerstone was first laid was very different from how it is today. The Washington Monument can trace its history as far back as 1810, when inhabitants of Baltimore started to raise money to create a tribute to America’s inaugural president. And as Washington deserved the best, some of the citizens reached out to a suitably important architect: one Maximilian Godefroy.
Despite Godefrey’s undoubted expertise, though, his numerous designs for the planned monument were rejected. That probably came as quite a blow to his pride, and it also took everything back to square one. But the folks at the Baltimore Washington Monument Society had a grand competition in mind. They invited people from across the globe to submit their own plans.
Right man for the job
Who won? Well, eventually it was decided that the task of immortalizing the country’s first president should fall to an American. And in 1814 the right man was found for the job: Robert Mills. Mills had been working on numerous different designs, but he eventually settled on a blueprint that was centered around an enormous column jutting into the sky. On top of this pillar, he envisioned, there would also be a statue of George Washington himself.
In a statement related to his design, Mills elaborated on the nature of the column he had drawn up. He claimed that it would “possess solidity and simplicity of character, emblematic of that of the illustrious personage to whose memory it is dedicated [Washington] and harmonizing with the spirit of our government.” But could he really pull that all off?
Well, Mills’ plans were actually quite restrained. That said, he hoped that the column itself would be finely decorated, giving a bit of grandeur to the memorial. The architect also imagined balconies wrapped around the column and a terrace at the peak. Both of these would allow people to see the structure and its surroundings up close.
Not quite reality
That was Mills’ vision. But as often happens with construction projects, something had to give. There were concerns about financing, for one, as well as how the completed monument would look. So, Mills’ plans were simplified. The balconies he’d imagined were dropped from the design. All the fine carvings on the surface of the pillar were omitted, too.
Starting in 1829
Now, there would just be a simple, unpunctuated column with a Washington sculpture on top. And even though an American designer was recruited for the project, it was actually an Italian who designed that statue. Enrico Causici crafted the piece, which was raised in 1829.
Still, the Washington Monument proved to be a huge draw for Baltimore. Yep, folks loved the structure even without the originally planned decoration. And in many ways, the landmark became one of the best-known parts of Baltimore – and gave it its nickname of “The Monumental City.”
An important landmark
When the Washington Monument was being built, it was located beyond the city limits. Over time, though, Baltimore has expanded to the point that the monument is at its heart. And the structure’s importance was officially recognized in 1971. It was then, you see, that the structure was classified as a National Historic Landmark.
Big time money
But even National Historic Landmarks fall prey to crumbling – especially if they’re nearly 200 years old! In 2010, then, the area around the monument was fenced off for renovation works to help make the structure safer and more robust. According to reports, about $6 million was pumped into this project.
An extensive task
Quite a lot of work was needed in order to restore the landmark to its former glory. Joints had to be tightened so that the whole thing didn’t topple over. Masonry was touched up, too. And that famous statue of Washington didn’t go ignored. It, too, was given a little tender loving care.
Fitted with security
That wasn’t all. The light and heating systems at the site were improved, as was the security technology. And, yes, that did affect the overall appearance of the monument. Now, its 19th-century masonry is adorned with contemporary CCTV cameras and alarms – which, let’s face it, does sound a little bizarre.
This contrast is even starker at the bottom of the monument, where a series of touchscreen devices have been installed. The machines are handy, though, as they give visitors background information about the structure. They also pull live feeds from cameras at the monument’s peak, and these provide magnificent views of the city.
Extension after extension
As for the renovation works themselves? Well, they were initially scheduled to conclude at the end of 2014. As often happens with big projects, though, keeping on track proved difficult. And Mount Vernon Place Conservancy vice president Faith Millspaugh said as much to the Baltimore Business Journal. Summing the issue up, she told the newspaper in 2015, “You find more problems when you start digging into things.”
Done just in time
Thankfully, the project was finally completed in the middle of 2015 – just in time to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of work on the site beginning. And Millspaugh was understandably pleased with the renovation. She told the Baltimore Business Journal, “The monument has been restored to its original condition – the way it was originally built. They wanted to do everything historically correct[ly].”
So, a success! The monument looked better and, crucially, was also more stable. But, of course, the workers got more than they bargained for when they were busy sprucing up the landmark. We’re talking, of course, about their discovery of the cornerstone time capsule and its very revealing contents.
Quite old indeed
Just how old was this capsule? Well, pretty much as old as the monument itself. After being packed with items for future generations to discover, the cornerstone had been placed into the ground on July 4, 1815. Apparently, around 30,000 people were there to witness this on the day – although, of course, they never got to see the stone raised again.
'First' monument to Washington
It’s no wonder that folks flocked to the event, though, as it was history in the making. And while speaking to Baltimore magazine in 2015, Humphries reflected on the Monumental City’s importance to the U.S. He said, “Baltimore was proud of the role it had played in the War of 1812 and proud to build the first monument to George Washington.”
Revealing the contents
So, for 200 years, the cornerstone lay undisturbed in the northeast section of the monument. That is, until the renovation workers finally unearthed it from six feet underground. And it proved perfect timing, as it meant the capsule’s contents could be revealed during the site’s bicentennial celebrations.
A picture of the era
By now, you’re probably chomping at the bit to know what was inside! Well, when the lid of the cornerstone was removed, four jars made of glass were revealed. And each of these was stuffed with various items. For instance, there were a number of newspapers – all of which dated back to the beginning of July 1815. This was around the time that work on the monument got underway, so the people of the period were evidently trying to provide future generations with a sense of their era.
As well as the newspapers, the cornerstone contained an image of George Washington and a copy of one of his earliest speeches as president. Some coins were also inside, as was a copper plate bearing some etchings. All in all, it was nothing too surprising, but it did still help to paint a picture of life in 1815.
Of course, this would’ve been the Baltimore folk’s intentions when they laid the time capsule into the ground. As Humphries put it to Baltimore magazine, “Newspapers and coins were pretty typical of cornerstones and time capsules of the time. [These people] were trying to show us what was going on in the world at that time.”
Pride of the stonemasons
And Humphries seemed happy that some sculpture was also within the container. While speaking to WBAL, he enthused, “It was amazing to see inside the cornerstone that there was this beautifully carved decorative panel of the stonemasons and the stone carvers from 1815.”
Safe from decay
Perhaps most impressively of all, though, the contents of the time capsule all appeared to be in quite good condition. There was evidence of a little water damage, but nothing major. Yes, those glass jars selected all those years ago had done their job exceptionally well.
The Washington jar
Maybe it helped that the jars were carefully arranged inside the time capsule. Not only that, but each was apparently themed in a particular way. For instance, one container was very much focused on George Washington. It featured the image of the president, of course, as well as a copy of one of his speeches and a medal bearing his likeness.
Another jar was dedicated to the current affairs of the day – or so we can guess from the copies of the Federal Gazette inside. In a rather neat twist, one of these newspapers – dated July 6, 1815 – actually had a story about the cornerstone being set down! In another container, meanwhile, a Bible from 1812 had been inserted.
A surprising addition
But covering all of the jars was a copy of the Declaration of Independence. And this made Humphries sit up and take notice. Why? Well, as he told CNN, “While it is well-known that the monument is the first erected to George Washington, the selection of this item for such a prominent placement adds new meaning to the monument and [increases] its significance.”
Humphries went on to provide some context for the decision to add such an important document. He said, “American national independence was fresh in the minds of Baltimoreans of July 1815. They had just played a key role in [securing] that freedom during the Battle of Baltimore the previous fall.”
And the discovery of this time capsule was a wonderful development for those interested in the history of Baltimore and its Washington Monument. In reality, though, it wasn’t exactly a unique find. You see, just months earlier in October 2014, another time capsule had been found on the very same site.
This second container had been hidden away in 1915 – so, 100 years after the first one. It’d been placed at the back of a bronze plate that had been laid down to mark a century since works on the monument first began. And as with the 1815 capsule, its contents were rather patriotic in nature.
A special portrait
Appropriately, the 1915 stash contained some general items relating to the Washington Monument’s 100-year anniversary. It also had some newspapers inside, as well as a picture of the Declaration of Independence and a painting of Francis Scott Key. Key, in case you’ve forgotten all your history lessons, was the man who penned the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
So, yes, that meant the Washington Monument contained not just one but a pair of time capsules! This wasn’t lost on Humphries, who said in a statement, “Few buildings have two time capsules. These items speak to the antiquity and symbolic importance of the monument in the history of our country.”
And those two time capsules seemed to have been created for different purposes. The one from 1815 appeared to highlight American independence and George Washington himself. The 1915 capsule, on the other hand, focused more on some of the wars and battles of a century beforehand.
Memory of a nation
But Humphries apparently considered the 1815 time capsule to be the most poignant – largely because of the inclusion of the Declaration of Independence. Speaking to Baltimore magazine about the document, he said, “When you pull that out, you literally feel what [the people] were thinking when they placed those items in that cornerstone. I think it’s revealing, too, that the word ‘Memory’ is engraved a bit deeper than all the rest of the words in the inscription on the original dedication plaque.”