By Rick Dapp
The Peripatetic Monument
By their very nature, monuments are solid objects permanently placed to remind us of the past, and Harrisburg, as well as the Central Pennsylvania area, is rich with granite and marble memorials to people and events that serve as silent reminders of the area’s story. A stroll on the grounds of the capitol complex provides an array of edifices erected to those people and events that constitute our history. A walk down Front Street, along the Susquehanna River, offers even more confirmation of the desire to remember past events and personages. However, if one travels uptown, a monument exists on the corner of Third and Division streets that has a more curious history than any other in the city.
With a reserve uncommon to other monuments in the city, it stands aloof to the activity surrounding it, overseeing the campus of the William Penn High School and the neighborhood around the Zembo Mosque. At its base, the inscription reads: “To the soldiers of Dauphin County who gave their lives for the life of the Union in the suppression of the rebellion 1861-1865. Erected by their fellow citizens.”
The Dauphin County Veteran’s Memorial obelisk stands 110 feet high and weighs over 600 tons. The granite in its construction was cut from the banks of the Susquehanna, and its design is not unlike a scaled-down version of the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital. Originally conceived by a committee of citizens devoted to preserving the memory of Dauphin County soldiers who died in the Civil War, the memorial had its origins in 1866 when the committee resolved to lay a cornerstone for it on July 4th. Unfortunately, the committee didn’t take into account the considerable expenditure of money that would be required to reach the plan’s realization. In a modern setting, it would have fallen into the “seemed like a good idea at the time” scenario.
According to a story on the history of the obelisk that appeared in the Harrisburg Patriot, dated December 25, 1903, the committee appealed for funds throughout Dauphin County with little positive response from the various businesses, public schools, churches, associations and professional men of the community. In despair, the men of Dauphin County looked for an unlikely ally – the women of Dauphin County.
Led by Miss Jennie Cameron, with the assistance of such social notables as the wives of Governor Andrew Curtin and Simon Cameron, the ladies of Dauphin County and Harrisburg provided an extraordinary solution to the problem of funding the memorial – a fair to be held in the rotunda of the Pennsylvania state capitol in late September 1866. The event, that lasted a week, generated over $9,000 toward the funding of the memorial, and the momentum produced by the event was enough to get the project underway.
Designs were submitted, and the project began. Of the nine designs submitted (“plans for the monument not to exceed $15,000 and a premium of $100 for the one accepted”), the design from Edward Hudson Worrall was accepted due to the fact that it was the lowest estimate. Worrall’s design called for a plain stone obelisk, 110 feet high, with stones set with leaden points and surrounded by a stone coping. The selection of site was left to the ladies who had so successfully rescued the project from an ignominious end, and their decision was an interesting one. They selected a small park at the intersection of Second and State streets for the obelisk.
Just a moment. Did we just learn that the obelisk was to be erected at Second and State? Why yes, yes we did.
There came a halt to the progress in the erection of the monument until, finally, in October 1867, Henry Brown, a marble dealer in Harrisburg was engaged to provide the stone for the obelisk. Plans for the laying of a cornerstone were announced with great fanfare in late October 1867 and, again, ennui prevailed, and nothing happened until July 1868 when the committee stirred Henry Brown to action. In early April 1869, the cornerstone was finally laid.
According to the newspaper article about the project, “for a short time, work on the monument was brisk, the shaft went up with some trying delays until the inscription was placed, and a few feet above it, some 62 feet five inches in all. Then came calamity. Henry Brown failed, the money had all been paid over; and the monument with no funds to it was still 50 feet from completion.”
Curiously, the cornerstone contains what would be presently referred to as a time capsule and contains items too numerous to list here, but includes: copies of local newspapers; jars of Dauphin County wheat, rye, oats and corn; postage stamps; and “a sealed jar of the principal beverage of the ancient inhabitants of Dauphin County.” To say the least, a chemical analysis of that last item would be interesting.
The semi-completed obelisk and the attendant stone was considered a “pile of rubble” and an “eyesore” that sat within clear view of the state capitol. It wasn’t until 1876 that the pile of stone was finally assembled under a new contract with another masonry contractor by the name of Jehu DeHaven, at a cost of $4,278, into a completed memorial to the fallen soldiers of Dauphin County. In early November, nearly 11 years after the plan for a monument was initiated, the capstone was placed, and the obelisk was complete.
Of note was the presence at the site of four cannons – that were captured Confederate ordinance – which were dismantled during World War II and contributed to a scrap metal drive, thereby losing them to history while aiding that war effort.
It would sit on its small plot on the corner of Second and State, overseeing the changes in downtown Harrisburg for the next 84 years – watching transportation move from horse-drawn to horse-powered, slowly deteriorating, and damaged by the occasional vehicle – ignored and occupying a continually shrinking bit of real estate as the city grew. Eventually someone decided that it was, quite simply, in the way. By the 1940s, there was a movement afoot to locate it elsewhere.
A dispute for the monument’s place in downtown began in earnest in 1949 when increased traffic around it resulted in numerous accidents involving both vehicles and pedestrians. By 1956, alternate sites were being proposed that included: Riverfront Park; the Capitol Grounds; Reservoir Park; and even across the Susquehanna in Lemoyne, which would have placed the Dauphin County Veteran’s Memorial in Cumberland County.
Ultimately, the triangular grass plot between Third and Fourth streets facing Division Street was selected. A contract for dismantling and re-assembling the obelisk was awarded to a subsidiary of Harrisburg’s John Stapf Company after an act of the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1957 to fund the project was passed. The funding act, signed by Governor George Leader, directed the funds to come from the Department of Highways (now Penn DOT).
Removing the monument began on October 13, 1959 with the re-assembled entity complete on February 12, 1960 at a cost of nearly $60,000. The core of the original obelisk was filled with granite rubble left over from the cutting of the stones. When rebuilt, the core was filled with 115 cubic yards of concrete, re-inforced with 27 steel bars, wrapped with 98 steel bands – needless to say, Harrisburg’s peripatetic monument found a permanent home with yet another 50 tons to hold it in place.
Given Harrisburg’s present financial woes, let’s hope it stays there.