First Look at the Original Washington Monument’s Hidden Secrets

Posted on February 19, 2015 by Ivan Petrov

“Divine providence seemed to smile upon the occasion;
the air was delightfully cool and the firmament serene.”

– John Horace Pratt (from his account of the 1815 cornerstone ceremony)

 

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Baltimore’s iconic 180-foot Washington Monument has just revealed another impressive historical artifact – a 200-year-old cornerstone and time capsule. Closed since 2010 for renovation work, the Monument will reopen its doors during the landmark’s bicentennial celebrations on July 4, 2015.

Time travel is seen as a myth, or an invention of science fiction. For the few who braved the cold and ventured to the Washington Monument on Wednesday afternoon the unprecedented opportunity to travel back in time almost 200 years became a reality. This astronomical leap was made by last week’s unexpected find at the base of the Washington Monument—the original cornerstone containing an intact time capsule from July 4, 1815. Interestingly enough, the two people who made my time travel experience possible are namesakes: George Washington, the first President of the United States, in whose honor the monument was erected, and George E. Wilk II, Project Superintendent for Lewis Contractors, who discovered the long-lost 200-year-old foundation stone while doing excavation work near the northeast corner of the monument.

Man of the hour – George Wilk – helped discover both the 1815 and the 1915 time capsules. The original resting place of the northeast cornerstone at the base of the monument is seen in the background.
Man of the hour – George Wilk – helped discover both the 1815 and the 1915 time capsules. The original resting place of the northeast cornerstone at the base of the monument is seen in the background.

The historians from Mount Vernon Place Conservancy and The Walters Art Museum were on site to give us the first glimpse of the 200-year-old time capsule and share the interesting history behind it. Unlike the specifics of its location, the existence of the cornerstone itself was well documented in John Horace Pratt’s authentic account. The stone laying ceremony was witnessed by nearly 30,000 people, a 39 gun salute honoring the declaration of independence, as well as a closing grand salute of 100 guns. The entire city of Baltimore took great pride in “being the first to erect a monument of gratitude to the father and benefactor of our country.”

The elaborate 1815 foundation laying ceremony in then Howard’s Woods, saw a procession descend to the place where the cornerstone was to be placed. Its fitness was ascertained before it was “laid agreeably to the ancient usages of the [Masonic] order.”

Architect Robert Mills, with the assistance of stone cutters William Steuart and Thomas Towson, placed the stone in its proper position. Corn was scattered and wine and oil were poured on the stone as part of the blessing ceremony for the new monument and the city of Baltimore. What took 14 years to build, this original 180-foot monument to George Washington made Baltimore known as “The Monumental City.” Decades later, Mills went on to design a second 555-foot monument in Washington, D.C.


For the past 43 years, the annual lighting of the Washington Monument has become a Baltimore tradition. It evolved from Mount Vernon residents lighting candles and singing Christmas carols, and marks the official beginning of the holidays season.” width=”750″ height=”498″ /> For the past 43 years, the annual lighting of the Washington Monument has become a Baltimore tradition. It evolved from Mount Vernon residents lighting candles and singing Christmas carols, and marks the official beginning of the holidays season.

 

The same 1815 account describes the content of the time capsule hidden within the 24-inch square granite block: “a copper plate, a sealed glass bottle, containing a likeness of Washington, his valedictory address, the several newspapers printed in the city, and the different coins of the United States.” It took an entire week for George Wilk and his team to carefully excavate and extract the cornerstone by hand. As soon as the capsule was opened in the early morning hours on February 18, 2015, it became evident that there were not one but three glass jars with broad bottle necks of various sizes. At least one of the jars appeared to be hand-blown. While the 200-year-old moment in time was captured by a slate of What Weekly Magazine’s print predecessors: well preserved copies of The Niles’ Weekly Register; The American & Commercial Daily Advertiser; and two editions of The Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser. The original engraved copper plate was also visible beneath the bottles and newspapers, but the current state of it was not clear. The hollowed out well within the stone was covered by a masterfully crafted marble lid engraved with the names of the original stone cutters, William Steuart and Thomas Towson, and stone mason Sater Stevenson.

 

First glimpse at the contents of the hollowed well within the cornerstone was in line with the 1815 account of the foundation-laying ceremony: glass bottles, newspapers of the days, with more historical artifacts yet to be revealed.
First glimpse at the contents of the hollowed well within the cornerstone was in line with the 1815 account of the foundation-laying ceremony: glass bottles, newspapers of the days, with more historical artifacts yet to be revealed.

 

Conservationists at The Walters Art Museum will be carefully examining the extent of the water and mold damage and studying the content of the 1815 cornerstone. This is the second such artifact discovered at the Washington Monument after a 1915 time capsule was unearthed by the same George Wilk in October. A 2015 time capsule is also planned as part of the bicentennial celebrations in July. With its content yet to be determined, we encourage What Weekly readers to submit their ideas!

 

In his April 17, 1789 address to the Citizens of Baltimore, George Washington noted: “The tokens of regard and affection, which I have often received from the Citizens of this Town, were always acceptable; because, I believed them, always sincere.” As we celebrate George Washington’s 283rd birthday this week, there is no doubt that this year’s bicentennial of the Washington Monument will be another sincere tribute to the Founding Father of the United States, who in the words of Henry Lee was “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

 

 

Lance Humphries, Chair of Restoration Committee, Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, demonstrating wellpreserved marble lid of the time capsule bearing names of the original stone cutters and the stone mason.
Lance Humphries, Chair of Restoration Committee, Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, demonstrating wellpreserved marble lid of the time capsule bearing names of the original stone cutters and the stone mason.

 

 

Mount Vernon Place Conservancy officials examining 1815 artifacts: Lance Humphries, Chair of Restoration Committee, Richard Thomas, Head of the Development Committee, and Faith Millspaugh, Vice President and Bicentennial Co-Chair.
Mount Vernon Place Conservancy officials examining 1815 artifacts: Lance Humphries, Chair of Restoration Committee, Richard Thomas, Head of the Development Committee, and Faith Millspaugh, Vice President and Bicentennial Co-Chair.

 

 

The original resting place of the cornerstone at the base of the Washington Monument. Once extracted, properly examined and analyzed the 1815 capsule and possibly its content will be returned to the same resting place to be re-discovered by future generations.

 

The original resting place of the cornerstone at the base of the Washington Monument. Once extracted, properly examined and analyzed the 1815 capsule and possibly its content will be returned to the same resting place to be re-discovered by future generations.

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