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The Washington Monument: A testament to perseverance

The United States was still a young country when plans began formulating to create a monument to one of its’ most respected founding fathers, George Washington. It had only been seven years (1783) since the country had declared itself independent from the Kingdom of Great Britain, when the Continental Congress voted to erect a statue of Washington, commander-in-chief of the American army throughout the Revolutionary War of Independence, and the country’s first president. Washington, DC, was not yet the nation’s permanent capital.

The Washington Monument

A pragmatist, Washington scrapped the plan which would’ve pinched already limited federal funds and it wasn’t until his death that Congress renewed their plans to build a monument – a pyramid-shaped mausoleum – to be kept in the Capitol rotunda. This plan, too, was nixed, mostly due to a lack of sufficient funds and uncertainty about the future of the American Union. Many had championed the idea, but it was James Madison and John Marshall who ultimately put together the Washington National Monument Society in 1833 to raise private funds for the monument. In 1836 the society announced a competition to select the design for the monument and the winning architect, Robert Mills (also known for his design of the U.S. Treasury Building and the U.S. Patent Office), submitted a neoclassical design with a nearly-flat topped obelisk circumnavigated by a colonnade capped by statue of Washington in a chariot.

The Many “Revolutions” of the Washington Monument’s Design

This design, which included statues of 30 prominent Revolutionary War heroes, was a grand departure from the original concepts. Alas this magnificent pantheon to America’s heroes was not to be. In 1848 the monument’s cornerstone was laid – an elegant embedded box containing a portrait of George Washington, U.S. coins, a copy of the Constitution and newspapers). But after only two years of construction, funds ran low and the project was suspended. After a delay of 20 years, and a brief hijacking of the Washington National Monument Society by an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant group known as the “Know Nothings”, in which no action was taken to advance the project, in 1876 – the 100th anniversary of America’s founding – President Ulysses Grant authorized the allocation of federal funds to complete the project.

Tastes in architecture had changed, which led to the deletion of the pantheon at the base of the obelisk and the construction delays resulted in mismatched quarry stone, which is why the monument is lighter at the bottom than the top. The second phase of the project was completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885. There are many notable facts about the monument, but one detail that has been relatively unknown concerns the material nature of the pointed pyramidion that caps it.

The Washington Monument’s Hidden Gems

Though widely reported in the metals world at the time of the monument’s completion, until recently many historians of the Carolinas didn’t realize that it was their semi-precious stones – rubies and sapphires – that made up the apex cap atop the monument. This is due, very likely, to the incognito form that those stones take.

At the time of the monument’s construction, aluminum had only recently been discovered. The difficulty of producing it, coupled with the necessity of using only the highest purity, made aluminum as expensive ($1.00 per ounce) as silver. Why was aluminum chosen? It had many ideal properties: it was surprisingly strong yet lighter than steel, possessing of superior corrosion resistance, was an excellent conductor of electricity, which made it seemingly a metal to last for all time. It was also perfect for casting into a design, could be polished to a high luster and engraved. It could also protect the main structure in the event of a lightning storm against damage.

The highest grade of aluminum oxide, corundum, appears in a crystalline form, which we know as rubies and/or sapphires. And at the time, the best crystals were being mined commercially in the Cowee River Valley of Macon County, North Carolina. This material is crushed, converted into aluminum chloride, reduced with metallic sodium to form salt and metallic aluminum, and then smelted and formed. And so it was that the Washington Monument’s obelisk was adorned with “rubies and sapphires”.

This is but one of a number of interesting details that make up the Washington Monument which continues to delight visitors from around the world.

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Sita Cole is the author of this article about the Washington Monument. She has collected a variety of sources including to write this article. Feel free to connect with her over at Google+.

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