Thousands of people have walked up the Washington Monument’s stairs. Thousands more have walked down. Some have done both.
But few have tackled the monument’s stairs in the manner of Max Duffek. In 1907, Max walked down on his hands.
He’s just one of many thrill-seekers who have seen the Washington Monument not as a timeless memorial to our first president but as something to be conquered.
Duffek was a professional athlete (more on him later), but plenty of enthusiastic amateurs have summited, too. After last week’s column on why tourists may no longer use the stairs, Answer Man heard from many readers who have fond memories of scaling the 555-foot obelisk.
Jerry Hospital of Fairfax and Paul Wahler of Solomons Island, Md., both played Catholic Youth Organization football on the Ellipse in 1962.
“One Saturday morning, there was a foul-up and our game time was pushed back by two hours,” Paul wrote. “Bored with a long wait, my teammates and I decided to go see the Washington Monument.”
The team climbed in their football cleats. “This probably wasn’t the best idea for a pre-game exercise since we lost the game by a large margin,” Paul wrote.
Jerry said his team climbed after they’d won their game. “Unfortunately, we lost the championship game the next week to St. Ambrose,” he wrote. “Maybe we were still exhausted from our climb.”
In 1960, a retired chicken farmer named Daniel J. Collins walked up and down the monument every day for a month. “I did it so when I get older, I’ll have more to look back upon,” Collins told a Washington Post reporter.
Collins was 86 at the time.
Arlington reader Hilary Donovan remembers reading a book by Julie Nixon Eisenhower called “Special People.” Each chapter is about a different famous person the president’s daughter interviewed. Among them was Prince Charles, who visited Washington in 1970. The heir apparent to the throne, 21 at the time, was shown the sights by Julie and her friends.
“It was a hot summer day, and they’d all taken the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument,” Hilary wrote. “When it was time to descend, Prince Charles said, ‘Let’s run down the stairs!’ And so he, to Julie’s amazement, ran down the stairs accompanied by David Eisenhower.”
Such impromptu competitive acts were once common. In 1904, tourists from Easton, Pa., were visiting the monument. The elevator was broken so they started trudging up. A one-legged man, M.R. Mahaney, challenged his friend Frank Kennard to a race.
They were neck and neck for the first 200 feet, The Post reported, “but then Kennard’s avoirdupois began to tell on his speed, and the one-legged man took the lead.”
Mahaney reached the top in 15 minutes. The winded, two-legged Kennard arrived six minutes later.
Although Answer Man could find no official record for climbing the monument, in 1937 The Post reported that Benjamin K. Morrow held the “up-and-down” record of 11 minutes, 45 seconds. Morrow was a guard at the monument, so he must have had some practice.
Eventually, these antics began to irritate authorities, who announced that official permission would be needed to race.
“I favor keeping the Monument as a memorial and not an athletic stadium,” said the National Park Service’s B.C. Gardner in 1937. “There are rules against running up and down the steps. I think they should be relaxed only for scientific purposes.”
Science was probably not on the mind of Max Duffek when he tipped over onto his hands at precisely 3 p.m. Nov. 9, 1907. “He took off only his overcoat, wearing a regular street suit, derby hat, high collar and tie,” wrote The Post. “The first four flights he descended with the ease and speed of a pedestrian, but at the height of 390 feet he removed his hat, and at 370 feet discarded his collar and tie.”
Halfway down, Duffek faltered. He rested his feet against the wall and was revived with a brandy-soaked apple and a sniff of ammonia.
The stakes were high. Duffek had wagered a certain Herr Steinguver that he could palm his way down all 898 steps in under 60 minutes. A certified check for $500 was waiting at ground level.
Duffek plodded lower, weakening with every flight. “Several women in the crowd wanted to have him stopped, but no one volunteered,” The Post wrote.
He seemed to be in a trance for the last 50 feet. Duffek succeeded in 58 minutes, 30 seconds. He took the $500 check, then boarded a cab to be whisked to a Turkish bath.
Oddly, The Post did not note that Duffek was appearing that week at Chase’s Vaudeville Theater. Answer Man suspects the entire thing was a publicity stunt.
Finally, Mike Litterst of the National Park Service notes that while there originally were 898 steps from top to bottom, there are now 896. “There used to be a step up into the doorway of the monument that was replaced with a ramp for ADA purposes,” Mark wrote. “And they reconfigured the stairs leading from the 490-foot to the 480-foot level and lost a step in the process.”
CORRECTION: A caption with an earlier version of this article had the wrong height for the Washington Monument.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.