Back in the day, my best friend and I used to ride the Greyhound downtown and go to the Washington Monument. We actually climbed to the top and climbed back down. I understand that it is no longer possible to do this. Why did this change? It used to be a fun thing to do. And every third or fourth landing had a resting bench. Can nobody keep up anymore?
— Ann Van Aken,
Have you not heard, Ann? Today’s obese, out-of-shape Americans can barely climb into their SUVs without passing out from overexertion. Can you imagine what would happen if they tried to climb the 898 steps it takes to get to the top of the Washington Monument?
In fact, it was concerns over health that ended routine access to the obelisk’s stairs. And that was way back in the 1970s, before we’d all blimped up. A worrying number of people were experiencing heart attacks during the climb or injuring themselves in falls during the descent.
According to the National Park Service’s Mike Litterst, the steps of the Washington Monument were closed for walking up in 1971, and then closed altogether — up and down — in 1976.
There were occasional exceptions, such as special ranger-led tours that took visitors past the 190 carved memorial stones inside the shaft. (Those tours stopped after the 2011 earthquake; the Park Service is hoping they may eventually resume.)
Mike said he began working at the monument in the summer of 1983. The “closure was still recent enough that many, many visitors remembered when they were open and asked about it,” he wrote me in an e-mail.
The Washington Monument opened to the public in 1888. The 1893 Rand, McNally travel guide to Washington noted: “A staircase of 900 steps wends its way to the top, around an interior shaft of iron pillars, in which the elevator runs; few people walk up, but many people descend that way.”
The first elevator — steam-powered — took seven minutes to ascend. In 1909, the superintendent of public buildings noted that about 1 in 10 people visiting the monument preferred to walk up, though the percentage varied by month.
He found it curious that a higher percentage of people climbed up during August than during April.
Perhaps that was because of the coolness of the marble monument’s interior. According to a Washington Post article headlined “Cool Spot on Hot Day,” published Aug. 4, 1901: “Not a torrid day passes but dozens of people, including, frequently, whole families, camp out on the monument stairs or in those green benches around the elevator base solely for the purpose of getting cool and keeping cool. As a rule they bring their lunches.”
The story quoted a watchman: “If they don’t make too much of a mess with throwing papers and stuff around we let them eat in here.”
Such were the days before air conditioning.
In 1939, the percentage of people preferring to climb to the top had dropped a statistically insignificant one point, to 9 percent.
Some people had to climb, whether they wanted to or not. In January 1959, the elevator was shut down for repairs, forcing men working on the mechanism at the top to hoof it. “It’s 898 steps to the top. I’ve counted each and every one of them,” Ralph Johnson, foreman for the Otis Elevator Co., told The Post.
It was estimated that the long climb was equivalent to 46 stories. They positioned an armchair at the 250-foot level. “Anyone who makes it that far deserves to sit down and rest,” said mechanic E.L. White.
The trip took about 20 minutes up to the top and 10 minutes down. The ironworkers, carpenters and electricians working on the renovation usually took their lunch up with them so they wouldn’t have to do it twice.
Among the workers, a 23-year-old named Jerry Zettle was the quickest. He made the round trip in 18 minutes — 11 up and seven down — sent on an errand by his boss.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.