Construction and Dedication
The John Ericsson Memorial is located where Independence Avenue joins Ohio Drive in West Potomac Park. This national honor to one of the United States of America’s adopted sons stands watch along the Potomac River much as Ericsson’s ships helped to safeguard the Union during the Civil War. In 1916, a successful effort was made by the Swedish-American Alliance, under the leadership of Simon Adolf Eckberg, to honor this man who proved such an inspiration to them and to all who came to our shores in search of the American dream. Congress appropriated $35,000 for the building of the memorial, but an advisory committee to the John Ericsson Memorial Commission was successful in its goal of raising an additional $25,000 through private donations.
After a great deal of debate, a site 900 feet south of the Lincoln Memorial was ultimately chosen as the site for the John Ericsson Memorial. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts encouraged the John Ericsson Memorial Commission to accept the design of noted American sculptor James Earle Fraser. A contract was drawn up with the artist on May 19, 1921. Fraser’s design includes an allegorical statue grouping elevated on a pedestal, gathered behind the seated figure of Captain Ericsson. The statues and pedestal rest upon a granite base in the form of a compass, a fitting honor for an individual so important in the field of marine propulsion and naval warfare. The allegorical grouping represents key facets of Ericsson’s heritage and achievements. The figures stand back-to-back around the Norse Tree of Life, known as Yggdrasil. This mythological tree was a binding force in Norse lore, which held together the many worlds of that mythos. This tree is an overt acknowledgment of Ericsson’s Scandinavian heritage, and indeed holds together the allegorical grouping. The figure of a Viking warrior, also reminiscent of Scandinavia, represents adventure. He is flanked on his left by an iron worker representing labor, a testament not only to Ericsson’s tireless work ethic, but to those laborers who brought Ericsson’s ideas to life. To the left of the iron worker is a female figure gazing over shoulders of the seated figure of Ericsson. This figure represents vision, a key component of Ericsson’s genius, as she blended the talents of the engineer and the innovator.
The Crown Prince of Sweden, Gustav Adolf received and accepted an invitation to attend the unveiling in May 1926. There was one problem however. The granite statue grouping had yet to be carved. Fraser prepared his scale plaster models for the unveiling, and painted them to appear as the pinkish granite from which the statues were ultimately wrought. A grandstand was constructed near the site, which had capacity for the seating of 1,900 attendees. The crowd which appeared at the dedication swelled far beyond the capacity of grandstands. On May 29, 1926, at 3:00 P.M., a crowd of more than 5,000 people gathered in West Potomac Park for the John Ericsson Memorial dedication. Among the distinguished members of the crowd were the Crown Prince, President Calvin Coolidge, Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Taft, and Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Jr. The true scope of the memorial as a testament to Captain Ericsson and the promise of America was perhaps best captured by President Coolidge in the closing words of his address that day,
Following the ceremony, plans for completing the memorial went into motion, as per the plans of Fraser and architect Albert Randolph Ross. The area surrounding the site was cleaned up, and the grandstands removed. Between September 1926, and April 1927, pink Milford, Massachusetts granite for the sculpted figures was carved on-site by the Ardolino Brothers firm from New York.
Interested parties in further work of James Earle Fraser in the Federal City, should direct their attention toward the Arts of Peace, at the southern entrance to Rock Creek Parkway, the figures of Contemplation of Justice and Authority of Law which grace the steps leading to the Supreme Court Building, and the Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin statues that watch over the southern and northern approaches to the Treasury Building, respectively.