The thousands who used to come to the annual celebration of Columbus Day dwindled to several hundred after the U.S. government made it a federal holiday in 1971, leading many federal employees to take a long holiday weekend out of the city.

Yet the ceremony, inaugurated in 1912 when the Columbus statue was unveiled at Union Station, continues each year, and event chairman David R. Curfman said he hopes the addition of an annual essay contest for schoolchildren will eventually boost attendance.

"The Columbus Day weekend became the last hurrah before winter and people just leave town," said Curfman, of the National Columbus Celebration Association. "The essay contest was my creation. We wanted to get schoolchildren stimulated about Columbus, more than just recalling the name and dates. This year's theme was how the world would have been different if Columbus had not discovered America."

This year's winner of the $1,000 prize is John V. Danford, 16, of St. Albans, W.Va., Curfman said. Danford will read his winning 992-word essay as part of today's 11 a.m. ceremony that will include a U.S. military honor guard, music by the Army Band and the presentation of 35 wreaths by patriotic and national groups.

The event is co-sponsored by the National Park Service.

"The three-day weekend really made a difference in the numbers," said Park Service spokesman Earle Kittleman. "We may get 100 people now. That is nothing compared to the day it opened."

In 1912, an estimated 30,000 people attended the unveiling of the semicircular white marble fountain set off by sculptured human figures, lions, eagles and a large globe showing the Western Hemisphere. Artist Lorado Z. Taft depicted Columbus wearing medieval clothes and standing on the prow of a ship, calmly staring into the distance.

President William Howard Taft spoke at the dedication, which was attended by members of Congress and the Supreme Court, following what the Washington Star called, "a monster parade," in which 50,000 marchers participated, many of them Knights of Columbus.

At the time of the dedication, Columbus was a very popular historical figure. In 1893, the Chicago World's Exposition was named for him and life-size replicas of his ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, floated on a artificial lake. In New York, composer Antonin Dvorak paid homage to Columbus with his "From the New World Symphony."

However, by the 500th anniversary, Columbus's heroic credentials were tarnished. He was recast as a symbol of exploitation and imperialism, and 32 Protestant denominations passed a resolution declaring 1992 as a year of reflection and penance. At Washington National Cathedral, an alternative celebration was held to mark "500 years of Indian resistance."

At the Columbus Circle ceremony, protesters skirted U.S. Park Police to climb the statue and throw what they said was human blood on it.

Curfman dismissed the accusations of the early '90s as "far from the truth," and said Columbus's voyages ultimately led to the establishment of "the most distinguished democracy in the world."

He said diplomatic representatives from Italy, Spain and the Commonwealth of the Bahamas have been invited to the ceremony in recognition of the Italian Columbus who sailed under the Spanish flag and landed in the modern-day Bahamas.

CAPTION: Today is the 87th anniversary of the unveiling of the Columbus statue outside Union Station, the center of a Columbus Day celebration.