[UPDATED Monday, Feb. 25, 12:14 p.m.]
All that is most important about Charlestown might be found at the top of Breed’s Hill. Towering over the town there, dwarfing everything else, is the solitary Bunker Hill Monument, one of the first public monuments in the history of the United States.
Not to overstate the importance of this landmark, but the battle commemorated here, even though considered a victory for the British, proved to be a sword in the side of the British military, a blow from which the Empire never recovered. The granite pillar stands as a testament, not only to the sheer, raw courage of men determined to drive out the enemy, but also to the loss of life of so many. It is witness to an excruciatingly bloody battle and the beginning of a new country.
The Bunker Hill Monument Association
The Bunker Hill Monument Association (BHMA) was formed in 1823, almost 50 years after the battle. Its primary mission was to "build a simple, lofty, majestic and permanent monument ... to ... those men who began and achieved the independence of their country." Founding members included Daniel Webster and businessman Thomas Handasyd Perkins.
By 1825 the organization had raised money to build a memorial and had begun the decision process as to which type of monument would honor the Battle of Bunker Hill. The BHMA bought 15 acres on Breed’s Hill, the actual site of the battle.
Although the organization asked Solomon Willard, a well-known architect in Boston (his designs included the steeple at Park Street Church and the columns at St. Paul’s Church on Tremont Street in Boston) to submit a design, they also announced a competition to which 50 additional designs were submitted. Robert Mills, who designed the Washington Monument in 1836, submitted an obelisk design. Horatio Greenough, a former student of Willard’s, won the competition with his own obelisk.
Greenough would not be the final designer, however. The BHMA, concerned with costs, asked Willard to do a cost estimate and several months later named him architect and superintendent of the project. Willard’s design, of a taller yet simpler obelisk, would prevail.
On June 17, 1825, the 50th anniversary of the battle, the French general and friend of the United States Marquis de Lafayette presided, while the cornerstone for the new monument was laid. Buried in a box were some official accounts of the battle, coins and medals and a piece of Plymouth Rock.
The Granite Railroad
In his book "Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology," David B. Williams gives us an excellent background in the use of granite. For about 20 years before the building of the Bunker Hill Monument, architects had been testing granite as a viable building material and finding its benefits. It seemed a stable stone which promised longevity and durability and much granite was to be found in quarries in and around Quincy, MA.
Willard suggested the BHMA buy a ledge of granite in one of the Quincy quarries from Gridley Bryant, an engineer and friend of Willard’s. The biggest problem, however, was how to transport it. In the case of getting the stone to the site of the proposed monument, there would be at least twelve miles of conveying involved.
Bryant advised using a railroad. He’d heard about the success of English railroads conveying stone from quarries. The only problem was there was no railroad leading out from the Bunker Hill ledge site at the Quincy quarry. Bryant suggested building one.
Initially the BHMA nixed the railroad idea but several businessmen, including Thomas Handsayd Perkins, liked the proposal. He knew of the economic advantages of rail transport, and on Jan. 5, 1826 a petition to the state legislature to establish a railroad was submitted. Three months later they broke ground on what is still called the first commercial railroad in the United States.
Next: The Building of the Bunker Hill Monument
Information for this article was compiled from various research materials, including "Stories in Stone:Travels Through Urban Geology" by David B. Williams; "Now We Are Enemies" by Thomas J. Fleming; and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunker_Hill_Monument.