History Timeline 1880s

Photo above: The Washington Monument, uncompleted without capstone, from the Department of Agriculture, circa 1880. Right: Engraving of the view of the Statue of Liberty from the Battery. Source: Library of Congress.

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U.S. Timeline - The 1880s

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  • Timeline

  • 1888 - Detail

    October 9, 1888 - The Washington Monument officially opens to the general public. Within a few short years, old maps of Washington will showcase the monument as one of the nation's most iconic symbols.

    Washington Monument

    It had taken so long to complete, thirty-seven years, that even after the capstone had been placed atop in 1884, the public would have to wait four more years until they could, officially, visit the unique obelisk that now skied above the capitol, at least for good. There had been some access to the iron staircase leading to the top in 1886 (an estimated 10,041 people climbed the 900 steps and 47 large landings to the top just after the dedication) and after the elevator had been converted for passengers, but the monument was once again closed in 1887, essentially to reconstruct an elevator for public use to the pinnacle and take measures to protect the structure and monument stones inside from vandals. The iron staircase was used until 1976 and it is now closed to the public.

    The elevator was steam-driven and took passengers on a ride of ten to twelve minutes up. It had been used as the freight elevator to lift the stones during construction and converted into a comfortable elevator with seats and padded walls. This was completed on December 20, 1886. In 1901, it was replaced with an electric elevator.

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    Who Should Be Credited

    The Washington Monmument Society had gotten the ball rolling in 1833, a private group organized by Chief Justice John Marshall, who would serve as its first president. Former President James Madison took over as the society's president after the passing of Marshall in 1835. Under Madison, the Society began to collect donations from the public to build a private structure, limiting the gifts to $1 per person. They got a certificate for their contribution.

    In 1845, the design by Robert Mills was selected. The Egyptian obelisk had a good amount of adornments in the original design that were never built. The ring of thirty one hundred foot columns was only the first; inside that ring would have been statues of thirty prominent Revolutionary War heroes and signers of the Independence. Perhaps most notable of the design that was laid off, was a huge statue of George Washington atop the pinnacle in a chariot. Original design estimated to cost $200,000.

    In 1848, the white marble cornerstone was laid, donated by Thomas Symington and his Beaver Dam quarry in Maryland, but most of the adornments set aside, at least for later. Congress authorized the Washington Monument to be built on public land that same year, and when the public ceremony was held, a zinc case filled with copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, coins and newspapers was laid within the twenty-four thousand five hundred pound cornerstone.

    Once it became apparent that the Washington Monument Society could not continue the project due to its financial situation amid a changeover in administration, the project lay fallow from 1854 to 1876. During the Civil War, the grounds around the unfinished structure were used to graze cattle, and known as the Beef Depot.

    Once the war was over and Reconstruction on its way, for good and bad, Congress appropriated the funds to complete it. Most of the credit for that period forward to dedication and public use should go to Thomas Lincoln Casey, the engineer in charge of the project. Construction resumed in 1879.

    The Public Climbs the Monument

    There's little known of those first passengers who got to take the ride up at the end of 1886, but once additional work was completed, the Washington Monument was ready to take passengers, officially, up the obelisk after its dedication on October 9, 1888. They had already been climbing the stairs at the pace of fifty-five thousand people per month prior to its dedication. What did they see at the top? Washington, D.C. from all angles from eight observation windows.

    The popularity of the structure grew exponentially despite its lack of capacity due to the arduous climb and elevator. By 1953, over one million were visiting each year. There are now restrictions on capacity due to terrorism threats and to protect the structure, that has been reduced to just over six hundred thousand per year, with exceptions for years of rebuilding or threats from terrorism.

    Memorial stones, one hundred and ninety-four, had been laid within the staircase framework and for years were restricted from public access due to the closing of the staircase. A new elevator cab, with windows, was completed in 2002, allowing visitors, once again, to see the stones.

    Since the National Park Service took over administration of the Washington Monument in 1936; 81,621,731 people have visited through 2021. Record attendance, 2,059,300, in 1966.

    Image above: Montage: (left) Lithograph of the original design by Robert Mills, 1846, Charles Fenderich; (right) Washington Monument at night across Tidal Basin, 1920/1950, Theodor Horydczak. Both courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Montage: (left) Man atop monument at capstone, 1920/1950 (date within span), Theodor Horydczak. Courtesy Library of Congress; (right) Scene of the Washington Monument, 1923, Theodor Horydczak. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info Source: nps.gov; mountvernon.org; irma.nps.gov; Wikipedia Commons.

    Washington Monument

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