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September 18th: Cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol was laid
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Photo: Vero Beach Masonic Lodge No. 250

September 18th: Cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol was laid

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1793 — U.S. President George Washington laid the actual cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol.

The history of the United States Capitol Building begins in 1793. On September 18, 1793, President George Washington, along with eight other Freemasons dressed in masonic regalia, laid the cornerstone, which was made by silversmith Caleb Bentley. Bentley was commissioned by President George Washington to make the brass cornerstone used for the White House groundbreaking ceremony in 1792 and a year later, Bentley made a silver cornerstone which was used for the United States Capitol.

In accordance with the "Residence Act" passed by Congress in 1790, President George Washington in 1791 selected the area that is now the District of Columbia from land ceded by Maryland. He also selected three commissioners to survey the site and oversee the design and construction of the capital city and its government buildings. The commissioners, in turn, hired the French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant to plan the new city of Washington. He located the Capitol at the elevated east end of the Mall, on the brow of what was then called Jenkins' Hill. The site was, in L'Enfant's words, "a pedestal waiting for a monument."

L'Enfant was expected to design the U.S. Capitol Building and to supervise its construction. However, he refused to produce any drawings for the building, claiming that he carried the design "in his head"; this fact and his refusal to consider himself subject to the commissioners' authority led to his dismissal in 1792. In March of that year the commissioners announced a competition, suggested by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, that would award $500 and a city lot to whoever produced "the most approved plan" for the U.S. Capitol Building by mid-July. None of the 17 plans submitted, however, were wholly satisfactory. In October, a letter arrived from Dr. William Thornton, a Scottish-trained physician living in Tortola, British West Indies, requesting an opportunity to present a plan even though the competition had closed. The commissioners granted this request.

Construction was a laborious and time-consuming process: the sandstone used for the building had to be ferried on boats from the quarries at Aquia, Virginia; workers had to be induced to leave their homes to come to the relative wilderness of Capitol Hill; and funding was inadequate. By August 1796 the commissioners were forced to focus the entire work effort on the building's north wing so that it at least could be ready for government occupancy as scheduled. Even so, some third-floor rooms were still unfinished when the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the courts of the District of Columbia occupied the U.S. Capitol in late 1800.

The War of 1812 left the Capitol, in Latrobe's later words, "a most magnificent ruin": on August 24, 1814, British troops set fire to the building, and only a sudden rainstorm prevented its complete destruction. Immediately after the fire, Congress met for one session in Blodget's Hotel, which was at Seventh and E Streets, N.W. From 1815 to 1819, Congress occupied a building erected for it on First Street, N.E., on part of the site now occupied by the Supreme Court Building. This building later came to be known as the Old Brick Capitol.

In general, however, the project progressed rapidly: the House of Representatives was able to meet in its new chamber on December 16, 1857, and the Senate first met in its present chamber on January 4, 1859. The old House chamber was later designated National Statuary Hall. In 1861, most construction was suspended because of the Civil War, and the Capitol was used briefly as a military barracks, hospital and bakery. In 1862, work on the entire building was resumed.

As the new wings were constructed, more than doubling the length of the Capitol, it became apparent that the dome erected by Bulfinch no longer suited the building's proportions. In 1855 Congress voted for its replacement based on Walter's design for a new, fireproof cast-iron dome. The old dome was removed in 1856, and 5,000,000 pounds of new masonry was placed on the existing Rotunda walls. Iron used in the dome construction had an aggregate weight of 8,909,200 pounds and was lifted into place by steam-powered derricks.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In 1859 Thomas Crawford's plaster model for the Statue of Freedom, designed for the top of the dome, arrived from the sculptor's studio in Rome. With a height of 19 feet 6 inches, the statue was almost 3 feet taller than specified, and Walter was compelled to make revisions to his design for the dome. When cast in bronze by Clark Mills at his foundry on the outskirts of Washington, it weighed 14,985 pounds. The statue was lifted into place atop the dome in 1863, its final section being installed on December 2 to the accompaniment of gun salutes from the forts around the city.

Between 1884 and 1891, the marble terraces on the north, west and south sides of the Capitol were constructed. As part of the grounds plan devised by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, these terraces not only added over 100 rooms to the Capitol Building but also provided a broader, more substantial visual base for the building.

1830 - The "Tom Thumb", the first locomotive built in America, raced a horse on a nine-mile course. The horse won when the locomotive had some mechanical difficulties.

1850 - The Fugitive Slave Act was declared by the U.S. Congress. The act allowed slave owners to claim slaves that had escaped into other states.

1851 - The first issue of "The New York Times" was published.

1891 - Harriet Maxwell Converse became the first white woman to ever be named chief of an Indian tribe. The tribe was the Six Nations Tribe at Towanda Reservation in New York.

1927 - Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System made its debut with its network broadcast over 16 radio stations. The name was later changed to CBS.

1947 - The United States Air Force was established as a separate military branch by the National Security Act.

1959 - During his U.S. tour, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited Wall Street, the Empire State Building and the grave of President Franklin D. Roosevelt; in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Khrushchev called on all countries to disarm.

1970 - American rock guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jimi Hendrix died in London at age 27.

1981 - A museum honoring former U.S. President Ford was dedicated in Grand Rapids, MI.

1984 - The 39th session of the U.N. General Assembly was opened with an appeal to the U.S. and Soviet Union to resume arms negotiations.

Author: USA Really