How a Pigeon Saved the Washington Monument

How a pigeon saved the Washington Monument is a sort of sad but mildly interesting piece of historical trivia.

By Judson D. Hale

Feb 01 2015


The partially completed monument, photographed by Mathew Brady; circa 1860.

Photo Credit : Public Domain
washington monument
The partially completed Washington Monument, photographed by Mathew Brady; circa 1860.
Photo Credit : Public Domain

Maybe some of you know that the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C was officially dedicated in February of 1885. But did you know a single little pigeon played a major role in its completion? Well, let’s start at the beginning…

The idea of a lasting memorial to George Washington took hold as early as 1783, while Washington was still alive, but political wrangling, money raising and design hassles held up construction until 1848. In the next six years, the monument rose to a height of over 150 feet. Then donations began to dwindle, and work stopped. Throughout the Civil War, the unfinished “stump,” as it was generally called, remained an eyesore on the Washington scene.

As the nation’s centennial celebration approached in 1876, the project was resumed. But when the engineers arrived on the scene, they discovered that all the scaffolding and ropes within the unfinished tower of blocks had rotted beyond use. So getting up the 153 feet of completed wall to the top presented a challenge. (The final plan called for a 550-foot height.)

So here’s where one solitary pigeon comes into the story to save the day. Following an on-the-spot plan put forth by one of the engineers, the construction workers managed to capture said pigeon and attach several hundred feet of threadlike wire to one of its legs. The bird was then taken inside the base of the monument and, after all the entrances were blocked, released. As soon as it began to fly, a pistol was fired, which so startled the pigeon that it soared upward and out the open top of the shaft. Once outside, the poor bird was immediately shot down by an engineer. The wire attached to its leg was recovered, to be used to haul progressively heavier ropes, until a thick cable was in place to which scaffolding could be mounted.

Thereafter, the work proceeded continuously until it was completed and in February 1885, 130 years ago, the monument was finally dedicated.

A nagging question: why didn’t they simply build a new scaffolding from the bottom up? Well, probably because the solution to the problem they chose to use was so much easier and quicker. But, jeez, what about the poor pigeon?