10 of America's Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them

Larry Holzwarth - May 6, 2018

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
The head of George Washington under construction circa 1933. Wikimedia

Mount Rushmore

An historian for the State of South Dakota, Doane Robinson, first conceived the idea of what is now Mount Rushmore, though his original vision was considerably different than what was eventually achieved. For one thing, he didn’t consider Mount Rushmore as the site for the monument, instead envisioning the Needles – granite columns in Custer State Park – as suitable for sculpting. He also didn’t consider Presidents as the subject of the monument, instead he wanted sculptures of western explorers and heroes including Merriweather Lewis, William Clark, William Cody, and possibly Native American leaders. After Gutzon Borglum became involved he changed both the subjects and the site.

Borglum found the rock composition of the Needles to be inadequate for sculpting, and in his opinion the subjects of the monument should be more nationally oriented. Funding for the project was pursued by South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck, who gained the support of President Coolidge to help push bills through Congress. Later Norbeck successfully gained the support of FDR to ensure the project was completed despite the Great Depression. Mount Rushmore was created over a period of 14 years during which there were no fatalities among the workers on the project, a remarkable safety record for its day.

Originally Borglum intended to present the four Presidents to the waist, with Lincoln’s arm and hand carved in the rock as if he was stroking his beard. Financial considerations altered that approach. The four Presidents were selected by Borglum. He also intended to have the Jefferson image behind and to the right of Washington, but examination of the rock on that portion of the mountain proved the idea to be unworkable. The carvings as they exist are roughly 60 feet high, and required the use of dynamite to remove over 450,000 tons of rock from the face of the mountain, followed by boring and removal of lesser amounts to finalize the shape of the figures. Skree from the blasting still lies on the mountain beneath the monument.

Carving the mountain began in October 1927. More than 400 workers were employed on the project. In 1933 the project came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, though Borglum remained in charge of the day to day operations. On July 4, 1934 the head of George Washington was declared complete and dedicated. Jefferson followed in 1936, and Lincoln the following year. An attempt was made in Congress that year to include the likeness of Susan B. Anthony but it was defeated, and the appropriations bill contained a rider which allowed for only the work which had already been started to be completed through the use of federal money. Theodore Roosevelt was completed in 1939.

There remains sufficient rock alongside and beneath the existing monument for additional sculptures, and Borglum had several plans for which he had created models for further carvings, but he died in 1941 and none of them have ever been seriously considered. Additional structures and chambers within the mountain have been added for support of tourists and maintenance but other than the sealing of cracks and occasional cleanings, no further work has been done on the monument itself. Mount Rushmore was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
The Great Chicago Fire is believed to have started near this property of DeKoven Street. Wikimedia

The Chicago Water Tower

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burned for three days, killing more than 300 people and leaving another 100,000 without shelter. As with most disasters, moralists and religious fundamentalists called the event an example of heavenly retribution directed at the immoral and wicked community Chicago had become. Others simply blamed it on a cow accidentally knocking over a lantern. Both suggestions are likely untrue, though the fire did start in the vicinity of the O’Leary barn, located in an alley behind DeKoven Street. The most likely cause of the fire is now believed to be accidental ignition of hay by gamblers, though the exact cause will never be known.

What is known is that Chicago of the day was for the most part built of wood, with tarpaper the favored roofing material. The hot, dry conditions of the summer of 1871 coupled with the steady breezes to the southwest to create perfect conditions for the blaze to spread, and the severely undermanned Chicago fire department could do little to stop it. Chicago’s growing stature as a rail hub and lake shipping port ensured that there was plenty of coal stored around the city, which added to the intensity of the fire and the smoke. Only rain, which began late in the second day of the fire, brought the blaze under control, but by then it had begun to burn itself out anyway, having consumed much of the city.

The Chicago Water Tower was one of the very few buildings to survive the fire. Built two years before the fire, ironically in part to support firefighting, the Tower’s limestone structure was scorched and blackened, but both the building and the standpipe within were undamaged. The Chicago Avenue Water Pumping Station nearby was destroyed by the fire, as well as the pumping equipment located within the building. The Water Tower became a symbol of the city’s survival and resilience, and led many to believe, incorrectly, that it was the only building in the city to have survived the fire. This belief remains today, despite a few other surviving structures remaining.

Subsequent to the fire the Water Tower was renovated, with many of the blackened limestone blocks of which it is constructed replaced. Changes to the street layout of the city led to the Water Tower being afforded a location in which it was a feature of the downtown area. Dwarfed today by the high rises of Chicago, it remains sited in a small park, home of the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower. The gallery displays the work of local artists as part of the Chicago Office of Tourism. The flamboyantly castellated tower has been said to have been an inspiration for the design of the early White Castle hamburger restaurants, but this has never been proven.

The Chicago Water Tower remains a symbol of Chicago, one of the few buildings in the burned area to survive, and a sentinel over the rebuilding of the city. It is the second oldest water tower extant in the United States, and arguably the most famous. Less famous is the story of Frank Trautman, a Chicago firefighter who likely saved the tower during the fire by keeping the building covered in water soaked canvas, protecting it from the cinders and flaming debris which swirled around it as the rest of the city burned. Although the Water Tower failed to save the city, the city managed to save the tower.

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
Mount Vernon as it appeared in the 1930s. National Park Service

Mount Vernon

Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, George Washington’s former home at Mount Vernon is, next to the White House it partially inspired, probably the most famous and recognizable house in the United States. For over one and a half centuries US Navy ships departing or arriving at Washington Navy Yard rendered salutes as they sailed past the house, though for most of that time the distance shielded the eyes of the men aboard from the dilapidated condition of the house and outbuildings. In Washington’s day an active fishery was located on the river, long gone by the middle of the nineteenth century. The manicured grounds were overgrown with weeds, and the house near collapse.

Mount Vernon was a much smaller house when George Washington received it from the estate of his brother Lawrence. It was Lawrence who gave the estate its name, after his British Navy commanding officer, Admiral Edward Vernon. Washington more than trebled the size of the house over a period of twenty years, and expanded the plantation into a diverse seat of industry, with a fishery, a nail factory, a brewery, a distillery, a gristmill, a sawmill, and a coopery. Washington was one of the earliest planters to practice crop rotation to keep the soil of his farms fertile. His house became famous in his lifetime.

Washington was seldom without guests while at Mount Vernon, and Virginia hospitality and his own social traditions ensured that all were welcome. Washington also had no objection to the grounds and its buildings being subject to the inspection of uninvited visitors, so long as they were sober and caused no harm. During his lifetime the house became an attraction for tourists, reachable by a good road to Alexandria or by the broad Potomac rolling past the house. After his death (he was buried on the grounds) the house became less of a curiosity, and it began a period of decline.

Shortly before the Civil War the Mount Vernon Ladies Association purchased the mansion with the intent of restoring it, and during the war caretakers remained in the house and on the grounds. Several battles of the Civil War occurred in the vicinity of the house and grounds, but by apparent mutual agreement neither the house nor any of the remaining outbuildings were molested by troops of either the North or South. Officers and men of both sides were known to have visited the building and Washington’s tomb, often at the same time, and were asked by the caretakers to cover their uniforms while on the site.

Mount Vernon and its grounds are today one of America’s most visited landmarks. It is wholly supported by the Ladies Association and the income it generates from admissions, with no tax dollars being used for its restoration, maintenance, or operation. About one million visitors tour the site annually, and it is open every day of the year, decorated seasonally to reflect how it would have appeared when Washington was in residence. It is estimated that over 80 million visitors have been to Mount Vernon over the years since Washington’s death, going to the home he once referred to as a “well resorted tavern.”

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
Designed to be bombproof, the Hoover Dam Powerhouse is under construction in this photo. Library of Congress

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead

When construction began on Hoover Dam in 1931 the consortium responsible for its completion, Six Companies Incorporated, were embarking on a project in which they would build the largest concrete structure yet attempted. They completed the project and handed Hoover Dam over to their customer, the United States government, in 1936, more than two years ahead of schedule. The building of the dam led to the creation of Boulder City as a community for the construction workers and Lake Mead, the largest water reservoir in the United States when it is at full capacity.

Hoover Dam provides hydroelectric power to Arizona, California, and Nevada, and water for irrigation across otherwise arid land. Three and one quarter million cubic yards of concrete were poured to create the arch-gravity dam, and as of 1995 the still curing concrete was continuing to strengthen. Over 100 workers died during the construction of the dam, three of whom were listed as suicides committed on the construction site. Diverted water from the Colorado River was allowed to flow to the base of the dam, beginning the creation of Lake Mead, in 1935 as concrete was still being poured. The powerhouse was completed as Lake Mead slowly filled.

Lake Mead was and is the largest water reservoir in the United States by volume when it is filled to capacity, which it has not been for decades. Extended drought and demands for water from the Colorado River have decreased the water levels of the lake. This has led to several of the power generators being replaced with new equipment designed to function efficiently with decreased water flow. Lake Mead provides water for the use of nearly 18 million people. It also is the source of irrigation water for over one million acres.

For most people unaware of the complex’s importance providing both water and power, Lake Mead and Hoover Dam are major tourist attractions. Visitors to the lake have found many boat ramps and docks have been moved from their original locations or closed permanently as the water level in the lake recedes. The lake, which receives the majority of its water through the melting of snow in the mountains, is expected to decline further during the next several years, and as of early 2018 was at just under 40% of its capacity. Continuing changes to climate and the resulting alteration of weather patterns are an increasing concern.

Las Vegas, Nevada, draws its drinking water from Lake Mead, and concerns over its ability to continue to do so led to the drilling of a water feed tunnel at the elevation of 860 feet, completed in 2015. The dam will cease electrical power generation if the water level drops below 950 feet, only about 100 feet less than its current level. Hoover Dam was a financial success, paying off its construction loans ahead of schedule due to the sale of the electricity it generated. It remains a highly visited landmark, and the water from its reservoir supported the growth of Las Vegas and other communities. Now both Lake Mead and Hoover Dam are threatened by the very success they created.

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
The Space Needle during the 1962 World’s Fair. Seattle Municipal Archives

The Space Needle

Built as a centerpiece for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the iconic Space Needle is the symbol of Seattle. It was constructed in just under one year, being completed in April 1962. Its foundation is sunk 30 feet into the ground, is over 120 feet across, and contains 250 tons of steel reinforcement within its nearly 5,800 tons of concrete. The foundation weighs as much as the structure it supports, and is designed to withstand an earthquake up to 9.0 in magnitude. In 2001 an earthquake centered in Puget Sound shook the structure sufficiently to slosh water from toilet bowls, without any significant damage to the structure.

Originally the Space Needle held a carillon, though it was an imitation using speakers rather than real bells, and could produce the sound of a carillon containing 538 bells. It could be played live by an operator or through the use of perforated rolls in the manner of a player piano. The carillon was played throughout the 1962 World’s Fair, after which it was uninstalled. Its sound was captured on a record before it was installed in the Space Needle and can be found on You Tube videos, though most incorrectly claim that they were recorded while the carillon was installed in the Space Needle.

The 1962 World’s Fair opened on April 21, and during the course of the Fair the Observation Deck of the Space Needle received an average of just under 20,000 visitors each day. Since the fair the Needle has undergone multiple changes, the revolving restaurant replaced with other eateries which have changed over time, and an additional level added which includes banquet facilities for private events. A second rotating restaurant opened, as of spring 2018 it was closed for renovations. Since 1999 a beam of light has been emitted from the top of the Space Needle to observe special occasions, it was illuminated in 2001 for eleven consecutive nights following the 9/11 attacks.

Several disconsolate individuals have used the Space Needle to commit suicide over the years, leading to renovations in which the observation deck’s windows were expanded to floor to ceiling panels. There have been at least six incidents in which parachutists have jumped from the building, which is 605 feet in height at its tallest point. The Space Needle serves as Seattle’s answer to Times Square every New Year’s Eve, when a fireworks show is performed at midnight. From time to time the Space Needle has been repainted to display support of sports teams, and for its 50th anniversary celebration it was painted gold.

The Space Needle has appeared in motion pictures and television, probably most famously in a drawing at the opening of the sitcom Frasier. Its base was also visible from the deck of that program’s fictional apartment. One of the interesting facts about the Space Needle is the amount which it moves. It is designed to sway one inch per ten miles per hour of wind speed, meaning a gust of 40 miles per hour will cause the structure at the top to move sideways a full four inches.

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
Steelworkers install the girders for another floor as the Empire State Building rises in New York. Wikimedia

The Empire State Building

Originally designed with a mooring mast for airships at its peak, the Empire State building has been iconic since before it was completed. It has appeared in television and movies throughout its lifetime, beginning with King Kong in 1933. It was built in the early and darkest days of the Great Depression, with construction beginning in the spring of 1930, and it opened in May of the following year, completed in just over 13 months. It has two observatories, on the 86th floor and on the 102nd, and over 4 million visitors use them every year.

Its construction was a masterwork of coordination and planning, with materials delivered on time and on demand, and its workers accommodated in ways calculated to minimize work time lost on site. As the building rose cafeterias and snack bars were installed on the uncompleted floors so that workers did not have to descend several stories to avail themselves of their services during breaks. Temporary water lines rose with the floors, providing drinking water to the workers. Building materials came from across the United States and Europe. As the supporting steel structure rose skyward, the façade was applied beneath it, and workers within the building finished out successive floors.

There were impressive firsts as the building was under construction. The steel structure resulted in the largest single purchase of steel ever up to the time of construction. When Otis Elevator received the order for the 66 elevator cars to be installed in the building it was the single largest order they had ever received, and a welcome one as the growing depression threw more and more out of work. More than 3,500 men worked on the building itself, supported by the daily delivery of materials and supplies. The building was completed under budget by almost $20 million, and twelve days ahead of schedule, an event celebrated by the last rivet in the steel frame being a ceremonial one of solid gold.

Although its construction was a resounding success the building was slow to gain popularity in terms of occupation. There was little demand for office space in the early 1930s. The mooring mast for dirigibles was revealed to be impractical and dangerous due to the vagaries of wind and updrafts, and the idea was abandoned after the US Navy made one failed attempt to tie up to the mast. In 1945 a US Army Air Force B-25 crashed into the building, an accident in which 14 people were killed. The building was slightly damaged and was open for business two days later.

It was not until the 1950s that the building began to be profitable and though no longer the tallest building in the world it remains one of the most prestigious addresses in Manhattan. Today it is considered an art-deco masterpiece and its public areas have undergone numerous renovations and improvements. In some years the sale of tickets to the observation decks have exceeded the income to the building derived from rents, an indication of the Empire State Building’s approval from the public. About 1,000 businesses have offices in the building, including several television and radio stations, which broadcast from its premises.

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
The towers for the Golden Gate Bridge under construction in the 1930s. National Park Service

The Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate was the name given to the one mile wide strait through which a vessel passes to enter or depart San Francisco Bay. The headlands to the north of the strait are the San Francisco Peninsula, to the south is today’s Marin County. In the early days of settlement, the two headlands were connected only by ferries, which were forced to navigate nearly blind during their passage across due to the heavy fog which often enshrouded the area. By the 1920s these ferries were operating on a regular basis, transporting people, products, and vehicles, and included the Golden Gate Ferry Company, the largest ferry operation in the world.

Pressure to build a bridge across the Golden Gate increased with the growing popularity of the automobile and the delivery of goods to their destination by truck. Opponents to a bridge were supported by arguments stressing the difficulties imposed by the currents in the strait, the often dangerously high winds, and the pernicious fog. The War Department and the Department of the Navy both opposed the construction of a bridge, because of the possibility of closing the strait to naval traffic. The politically powerful Southern Pacific Railroad – which owned the Golden Gate Ferry Company – was concerned that the bridge would destroy its profitable ferry service.

Construction of the bridge began in January of 1933. A thin deck was designed to span the straits, able to flex in response to the winds and the loads placed upon it, with the loads transferred to wound steel cables which supported the deck. In turn the loads were transferred from the cables to the twin towers, which transferred them to the bedrock on which they stood. Construction took just over four years, at a cost of $35 million (just under $500 million today) and 14 lives. A week-long celebration took place following completion. The bridge has pathways for both pedestrians and cyclists, which can be used according to specific published schedules during the day.

The Golden Gate Bridge was the world’s longest suspension span when it opened, a title it retained until 1964. More than 80,000 miles of wire are wound together to form its cables and suspenders. More than 1.2 million rivets hold the framework together and its iconic orange color is maintained by a team of 38 painters. The bridge paid for its construction through the collection of tolls, with the construction loans being fully paid in 1971. Tolls today are used to defray maintenance and repair costs. They have also been used to cover the costs of suicide barriers, which began to be erected on the bridge in the spring of 2017.

The barriers were deemed necessary due to the over 1,500 deaths ascribed to the Golden Gate Bridge in the years since it opened in 1937. The bridge holds the dubious distinction of being the second most used for suicide in the world. Jumping from the center of the span generates an impact speed of roughly 75 miles per hour, depending on wind conditions. Impact with the water is usually fatal, and if the impact is survived hypothermia can set in quickly in the cold waters of the strait.

10 of America’s Iconic Landmarks and the Unexpected Stories Behind Them
An early twentieth century post card depicting Independence Hall. Wikimedia

Independence Hall

Independence Hall can rightly be called the birthplace of the United States. Within the building, then called the Pennsylvania State House, the Second Continental Congress convened and commissioned George Washington to command the Continental Army. Independence of the thirteen colonies was proposed, debated, and enacted within the building, its windows closed despite the stifling June heat, to keep its discussions private. The Continental Congress used the building for its sessions throughout the Revolutionary War, except when forced to flee the city of Philadelphia before the British occupation.

When the Articles of Confederation, debated within the building but passed elsewhere, proved inadequate to the task of creating a national government it was to Independence Hall where the founders repaired to create the Constitution of the United States. What eventually became the United States Department of the Post Office was created there, its first Postmaster General the Philadelphia native Benjamin Franklin. The Liberty Bell was originally hung in its lower steeple, and then in a new upper steeple. It is now displayed across Independence Square.

Independence Hall was the home of the Pennsylvania Colonial Assembly from 1732. The Governor’s council also occupied the building, which is built of red brick and which was expanded with the addition of wings until it reached the configuration it retains today. The scenes which unfolded within the building during the Revolutionary era alone would be enough to give the building its status as an American Landmark, but there are other, lesser known events in its past which contribute to its status in American history.

Abraham Lincoln’s body was brought to Independence Hall to be held in state in April of 1865. Over 300,000 people waited in lines for hours to pass by the bier and pay their respects. The coffin was open. The following morning Lincoln’s coffin was carried by a hearse through the Philadelphia streets to the train station and the next stop of his funeral train in New York City. Since the Civil War era Independence Hall has been the site of protests, rallies, Presidential addresses, local political speeches, and numerous documentaries and films. It is one of the leading tourist attractions in Philadelphia.

The back of the one hundred dollar bill features a depiction of Independence Hall, and its interior is featured in dozens of paintings of the Founders as they went about their work. Independence Hall is part of the Independence National Historical Park and is administered by the National Park Service. It has been painstakingly restored to its appearance during the Revolutionary War era, both interior and exterior. It is a World Heritage Site as listed by Unesco, and besides being the site where the United States announced its independence, it was the site where an independent Czechoslovakia was announced in 1918.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“In Search of Liberty: The Story of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island”, by James B. Bell and Richard L. Abrams, 1984

“A Monumental Achievement”, by Judith Dobrzynski, The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2006

“Chicago In and Around the Loop”, by Gerald Wolfe, 1996

“History of Mount Vernon”, by George Washington’s Mount Vernon, mountvernon.com, online

“Hoover’s Promise: The Dam That Remade The American West Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary”, by Sally Denton, American Heritage’s Invention & Technology, Summer, 2010

“Seattle Space Needle”, by Jeff Jacobs, Emerald City Journal, June 3, 1013

“Empire State Building Has a Tangled History”, by Charles V. Bagli, The New York Times, April 28, 2013

“The Golden Gate Bridge”, by T. O. Owens, 2001

“The Nine Capitals of the United States”, by the United States Senate Historical Office, based on the book of the same name by Robert Fortenbaugh, 1948 (out of print)

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