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Story of the Bunker Hill Monument, Part 1

A closer look at the famous marker in the middle of Charlestown.

[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.

Jack Spiegel February 14, 2013 at 05:43 AM
My Patriot Ancestor is one Oliver Breed. This article has much meaning for me. Any follow up's please e-mail me at "cgradsta@yahoo.com". I check into this site every few days or so. Many Thanks.
Helen O'Neil February 14, 2013 at 08:33 PM
Jack, Thanks very much for letting us know about your ancestor Oliver Breed. It's always good to hear from PATCH readers.
David B. Williams February 23, 2013 at 05:56 PM
Ms. O'Neil, Greetings from Seattle. Thanks kindly for mentioning my book, Stories in Stone. The geological and human story of the Bunker Hill Monument was one of my favorites in researching and writing my book. It's great to see that story get spread further through your articles. Cheers, David Williams
Helen O'Neil February 24, 2013 at 08:00 PM
Thank you David. Your book, 'Stories in Stone,' was the greatest influence behind the telling of the story of the monument.
Martin Kane March 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM
Hi everyone. Just thought I'd share an interesting fact I picked up while doing some research for a movie, The Battle of Bunker Hill that I wrote. Breeds hill didn't exist. There was one prominent hill in Charlestown, Bunker/s hill. It wasn't until after the battle when soldiers who were present wrote their accounts of the battle that they began to refer to the redoubt area, which was erected on or near a paddock named Breed's paddock. Perhaps it was Oliver, but I don't know that. So it wasn't until much later that there became a reference to a Breeds hill. I know growing up here it all just seemed like one big sloping hill, and it was never referred to as Breed's hill. In fact, the British soldiers under the command of General Howe, who would later be the Commander of the British Army in the Colonies, suffered 90 percent casualties along the Mystic River trying to flank the colonists. So, in my opinion, if there's a reference to The Battles of Bunker and Breed's hills, there could and should be a reference to the Battle of Mystic River, also. Just a bit of fun there. I hope you enjoyed this little fact, and thank you all for sharing.

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