The Know-Nothings were nervous that the pope, like other foreign and religious leaders, had sent a slab of marble to be placed inside the monument, which reopened to the public Thursday amid much fanfare after damage from a 2011 earthquake.
After they snatched the stone, they reportedly loaded it into a rowboat and dumped it in the Potomac River. (At least that was the story a “saloon keeper” later told The Washington Post, requesting anonymity.)
The attack could not have come at a worse time. The Washington National Monument Society, a private organization raising funds for the project, was out of cash. Soliciting stone donations from states and foreign governments was the 1850s version of a Kickstarter campaign. But it wasn’t enough.
The stubby, uncompleted monument became a national eyesore. A year after the attack, the society asked Congress for money to complete the project. Congress was on board, approving $200,000, the equivalent of $6.1 million in today’s George Washingtons.
You know who wasn’t happy with Congress stepping in? The Know-Nothings. According to the National Park Service’s history:
The night before, however, a group of about 750 members of the Know-Nothings, many of whom had joined the Washington National Monument Society, called a meeting. They voted 17 of their own officers into the Society, and the next morning announced that they were in possession of the Washington Monument.
Congress tabled the resolution. Two weeks later, the project’s architect, Robert Mills, died. And you know what the Know-Nothings did next? Essentially nothing. They added three feet to the monument. Three feet!
In 1858, as the Know-Nothings self-combusted, the original society wrestled back total control. Then the women stepped in, with several founding the Ladies Washington National Monument Society, an offshoot of the original group.
In 1860, the women reported raising a whopping $154.46. Then the Civil War broke out. The country had bigger problems than this stubby structure, which now stood paused at 176 feet. The whole neighborhood took a turn for the worse.
“Following the Civil War, the swamp-like grounds of the Washington Monument became known as ‘Murderer’s Row’ as they became the hangout of escapees, deserters and all other types of flotsam of the war,” according to the National Park Service.
It wasn’t until 1876, amid a patriotic wave leading up to the country’s first Centennial, that Congress passed a law allowing construction to resume. On Dec. 6, 1884, construction was completed, with the tip of the obelisk reaching 555 feet.
The dedication took place the next year, the day before Washington’s Birthday, which fell on a Sunday. The Park Service’s history described the moment:
Washington’s birthday that year was clear and cold, and the sharp wind blowing down the Potomac chilled the assembled crowd. The ground at the base of the majestic shaft was encrusted with snow. But it was a great day for the men who spent years completing the monument, as the obelisk to the Father of his Country stood noble, proud, majestic and serene. It represented the ideals of America.
And it was the tallest building in the world — until the Eiffel Tower in Paris knocked it off that pedestal.