Article

Building the Bunker Hill Monument

Marble statue of Joseph Warren
Joseph Warren by Henry Dexter in Bunker Hill Lodge.

NPS Photo/Parrow

One country, one constitution, and one destiny.
-Daniel Webster, June 17, 1843[1]

Some people understood the significance of the Battle of Bunker Hill even before the smoke of musket fire and burnt houses cleared. Provincial militia from many different towns performed well together, leaving the enemy reeling for a time. The charismatic leader, Doctor Joseph Warren became a martyr to the Provincial cause, after he died at the hands of the British forces.

Through popular songs, plays, paintings, and pamphlets released following the battle, the battle and the loss of Warren became shared stories that united Americans. The song, “The American Hero,” the play “Bunker Hill,” and the painting “The Death of General Warren” were all well-known. Thomas Paine, in his popular pamphlet Common Sense, wrote that provincial losses at Bunker Hill added to the cruelties inflicted by Great Britain that only declaring independence could end.[2]

People visited the Bunker Hill battlefield in the years following the war. In the 1820s, when some landholders of the battlefield planned to sell their land for development, a group of Bostonians decided to act.[3]

Lofty Plans

The Bunker Hill Monument Association (BHMA) formed in 1823 by prominent citizens in the Boston area. They wanted to preserve part of the battlefield and build a great monument where the Provincial militia had dug in on Breed’s Hill.[4]

single white obelisk with carvings against a blue sky.
Lateran Obelisk, Rome© Can Stock Photo Inc. / vvoennyy

On June 17, 1825, the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, an immense crowd gathered for a cornerstone-laying ceremony for the monument. It included about 40 veterans from the 1775 battle, and another 190 from the Revolutionary War. The General Marquis de Lafayette and the statesman-orator Daniel Webster led the ceremony.

Only within days of the ceremony, the BHMA decided to build a granite obelisk. Horatio Greenough, a 22-year-old, won the design competition sponsored by the BHMA. The Egyptian obelisk in Rome’s Piazza San Giovanni (right) inspired Mr. Greenough. A granite obelisk would be formidable and durable with a classic touch.[5]

The BHMA appointed Solomon Willard as the Architect and Superintendent of the project. He received help from Alexander Parris, Loammi Baldwin, and Gridley Bryant, all well-known engineers at the time. James S. Savage served as the chief stonemason for the project.

Land and Sea

The BHMA purchased 15 acres of the battlefield in 1825; this land already contained the first monument on Breed’s Hill. Installed by the King Solomon’s Lodge in 1794, it was a wooden pillar dedicated to the fallen Doctor Joseph Warren. The Freemasons agreed that their aging, wooden pillar should make way for the granite obelisk.

landscape of a quarry with a few work sheds and a track with horse-drawn carriages
Bunker Hill Quarry, painting by V. Campbell, based on a drawing by Draper Hill.

Courtesy of the Quincy Historical Society.

The BHMA also bought a granite quarry in nearby Quincy, Massachusetts. The first commercial, horse-drawn railway took the granite blocks from the quarry (left) to the Neponset River three miles away. Ships carried the blocks along coastal waters to Charlestown.

The finishing of the blocks occurred at the quarry in Quincy. Workers cut and shaped the blocks, smoothing them to varying degrees with hand tools.

Start and Stop

The building of the obelisk began in May of 1827, but the work stopped in December of 1828 after a 19-month effort because the BHMA ran out of money. The monument reached about 37 feet tall, sitting upon a huge foundation.

Work resumed in June of 1834 with help from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, a workingmen’s fraternal group. This activity lasted 17 months before work stopped again in November 1835. The monument now stood 85 feet tall, still 135 feet short of the goal of 220 feet.[6]

The BHMA collected donations large and small, including $7,000 from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but it was not enough. In 1839, the BHMA sold 10 acres of the battlefield purchased in 1825 to pay off debt.[7]

cropped image of the poster that reads "Ladies Fair"
Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection.

Women's Work

Still short of money, the BHMA reduced the proposed height of the monument to about 160 feet, instead of the planned 220.[8]

Sarah Josepha Hale, a women’s rights advocate and magazine editor, and other women, accepted the challenge of completing the monument at 220 feet. Hale suggested a week-long “Ladies’ Fair” in Quincy Market in Boston in September of 1840.

Due to the efforts of these women, the Bunker Hill Monument Fair raised over $30,000, about a quarter of the total cost of the monument. With two more private donations of $20,000, work on the monument restarted in May of 1841. With this funding and a new steam engine, 135 feet of the monument went up in about a year; in July 1842 the finished obelisk reached 221 feet. Cement between blocks added about a foot to the height.

hoist surround by one level of granite blocks
Solomon Willard, Plans and Sections of the Obelisk on Bunker’s Hill

(Boston MA, S.N. Dickinson, 1843)

A Heavy Lift

Composed of 3,000 large and small granite blocks, the finished obelisk has four sides, an inner core, and a staircase. This drawing (left) shows a hoist stacking the first two levels above ground. Workmen stacked every level of the monument the same way, with each level becoming smaller as the obelisk narrows, moving skyward.

Ropes and pulleys were the other basic tools used for lifting the blocks. Each large block weighed on average five tons, with some much heavier. In the end, the completed Monument weighed 7,000 tons.

At first, horses provided the lifting power for the hoist, later a steam engine did the work. With steam power, the monument went up more quickly.

A capstone, a pyramid-shaped granite block weighing about three tons topped off the monument. Installing it was a challenge. Another clever hoist with the steam engine lifted the capstone from the ground, similar to lifting a fish from the sea with a rod and reel. A workman volunteered to ride atop the capstone as it rose that “frightful height between heaven and earth”. A 26-gun salute, one for every state in the United States, signaled the end of the project; the monument was finished.[9]

Building the monument took fifteen years from 1827 to 1842, but with lengthy stoppages. The actual construction period was about four years. It cost over $120,000 to build it; today it would cost over $3.6 million.[10]

Only one workman died during the construction of the monument; he fell to his death as the tower reached 40 feet.[11]

Opening Day

On June 17, 1843 the monument opened in a national event. Daniel Webster spoke again, with United States President John Tyler attending. There were fewer veterans from the Battle of Bunker Hill as guests than at the cornerstone-laying ceremony; they numbered only 13, with 95 other veterans.

A parade over two miles long with many thousands of marchers and sixty military companies moved from downtown Boston to the Monument. Over 100,000 people attended the ceremony “creating a scene that beggars belief,” a great sea of people covering two miles square.[12]

Lost and Found

The Bunker Hill Monument Association did not preserve 10 acres of the battlefield and kept only the 4 acres around the obelisk. The BHMA had underestimated the cost and time it would take to both preserve the battlefield and erect an obelisk.

plaques on a granite block
Memorial Tablets, Winthrop Square, Charlestown, MA

NPS Photo/Parrow

The City of Boston had an issue with the BHMA, the group had not listed the Provincial militia killed in the battle. In 1889, the city installed four bronze tablets (right) a few blocks from the Monument containing those names.[13]

Three African Americans are on the list. Over 100 “patriots of color”, free and enslaved, fought in the battle.[14] Like the other militiamen, they had expected to improve their lives that day.

In It Together

By 1919, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts owned the Bunker Hill Monument, but in 1975, it passed the task of preserving this national shrine to the National Park Service. The Bunker Hill Monument became a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Boston National Historical Park of the National Parks of Boston now stewards the Bunker Hill Monument.

The Bunker Hill Monument preserves the memory of the Battle of Bunker Hill for Americans. It honors the solidarity and sacrifice of the Provincial militia because the militia changed not only their own lives but the lives of future Americans that day.

Like the battle, the building of the monument was a shared effort. Although elite Boston men ran the BHMA, help was both local and national;[15] it came from the young and old, rich and poor, men and women. They built the monument together.

The monument remains an engineering marvel; it was the tallest structure in the United States until the Washington Monument in 1880. Climbing the 294 stairs to the observation platform remains a popular way to engage the Bunker Hill Monument. The Monument receives about 330,000 visitors a year.


Footnotes:

[1] Daniel Webster, Delivered at Bunker Hill, June 17, 1843 on the Completion of the Monument (Boston, MA: T.R. Marvin Press, 1843) 22.

[2] "The American Hero: A Sapphic Ode by Nathaniel Niles, 1775," What So Proudly We Hail, 2013. https://www.whatsoproudlywehail.org/curriculum/the-american-calendar/the-american-hero-a-sapphick-ode (Accessed Jan 2021); Jack Lynch, “Felled on the Field of Honor, The Seditious Patriot: Mr. John Daly Burk,” Colonial Williamsburg, CW Journal (Autumn 2005) https://research.colonialwilliamsburg.org/Foundation/journal/Autumn05/burk.cfm, (Accessed Jan2021); John Trumball “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill 1786,” Museum of Fine Arts https://collections.mfa.org/objects/34260/the-death-of-general-warren-at-the-battle-of-bunkers-hill?ctx=8d90315c-5370-4266-9cda-40c483ab6153&idx=0 (Accessed Jan 2021); Thomas Paine, Common Sense, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/147/147-h/147-h.htm, ¶ 76,84.

[3] These five men were: William Tudor, T.H. Perkins, Dr. J.C. Warren, Daniel Webster, and Edward Everett. George W. Warren, The History of the Bunker Hill Monument Association During the First Century of the US (Boston, MA: James R Osgood and Co., 1877) 38.

[4] Michael E. Chapman, Granite Cities, Yankee Heroes, American Dreams (Reading, MA: Trebarwyth Press, 2012) 17-34.

[5] Ibid., 32-35.

[6] George W. Warren, The History of the Bunker Hill Monument Association During the First Century of the US (Boston, MA: James R Osgood and Co., 1877) 216.

[7] William W. Wheildon, Memoir of Solomon Willard, Architect and Superintendent of the Bunker Hill Monument (Boston, MA: Printed by Direction of the Monument Association, 1865) 190.

[8] Ibid., 175.

[9] This hoist was in the shape of a large triangle. Two arms of the triangle reached to a point above the monument while the third stretched between the east and west window openings at the top. The Boston Courier, July 25. "The Cap Stone of the monument was laid on Saturday Morning at six o'clock," New York Spectator, 30 July 1842. In Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/GT3003830312/NCNP?u=mlin_b_bpublic&sid= NCNP&xid=efef481a, (Accessed Jan. 2021).

[10] Ian Webster, “Value of $1 from 1840 to 2021,” CPI Inflation Calculator, https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1840?amount=1, (Accessed Jan 2021).

[11] Chapman, Granite Cities, Yankee Heroes, American Dreams, 73.

[12] "The Arrival of the President at Bunker Hill," New York Herald, 19 June 1843. In Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/GT3015670206/NCNP?u=mlin_b_bpublic&sid= NCNP&xid=99360e31, (Accessed Jan. 2021).

[13] William H. Whitmore, A Memorial of the American Patriots who fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Dedication of the Memorial Tablets on Winthrop Square, Charlestown, June 17, 1889 (Boston, MA: Printed by order of Boston City Council, 1889).

[14] These men are Samuel Ashbow, Cesar Bason, and Philip Abbot. George Quintal, Jr., Patriots of Color, A Peculiar Beauty and Merit (Boston MA: Boston National Historical Park, 2004) 258.

[15] Donations came from the New England states, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Louisiana, and New York. Warren, The History of the Bunker Hill Monument Association During the First Century of the US. Beyond donations, the saga of building the monument was in newspapers across the country.

Last updated: June 8, 2021