History documents the convergence of people, places, and things. The George Washington Masonic National Memorial is the result of several critical events.
Foremost among these, of course, is the extraordinary life of George Washington. But almost as critical is that Washington agreed to serve as the Charter Master of the Alexandria Lodge when it became number 22 under the Grand Lodge of Virginia in 1788. The Lodge’s dedication to Washington’s memory, as demonstrated through the creation of its museum and archives, ultimately brought forth the Memorial Association in 1910.
Throughout the many ebbs and flows, currents, forks and convergences of human history, one spot in the Memorial’s story has remained. For thousands of years a single hill of earth and clay sat overlooking the tidal plain of the confluence of the Potomac River and Cameron Run. That hill contains not just its own natural history, but a history of human activity. How it came to be selected and purchased for the Memorial’s site includes many facts, and even a few legends.
The first point to clarify is the hill’s proper name. It has been known both as “Shooter’s Hill” and “Shuter’s Hill.” From at least 1787 through the 1860s, the hill was named after a man by the surname of Shuter who lived in the area in the 1740s. There are also examples before 1861 of the name “Shooter,” which could refer to Shooter’s Hill in London. During the Civil War, when Fort Ellsworth stood upon the hill, it became known as “Shooters” due to its garrison shooting cannons and rifles on a regular basis. Today, most Alexandrians call it Shuter’s Hill, and that works.
The first documentation of the hill dates to 1669. It was then the property of Robert Howson, who transferred it to John Alexander for six thousand pounds of tobacco. Nearly eighty years later, Alexander’s great-grandson sold the hill to local merchant, John Mills in 1779. He built a large house on a twenty-acre plot, but died suddenly in December of 1783.
The hill remained unsold until 1790, when Col. Ludwell Lee (1760–1836) purchased the plot. The son of Richard Henry Lee, he had served in the American Revolution on Lafayette’s staff and was present at Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. He was later a delegate to, and speaker of, the Virginia House of Delegates. His sister, Hannah, married George Washington’s nephew, Corbin Washington.
Col. Lee expanded his estate by adding further acreage and building a large mansion that faced east, overlooking Alexandria and the Potomac River Valley. In the late 1790s and early 1800s, his estate hosted the large Lee clan and many affluent citizens and planters. Fox hunts, barbecues, balls, banquets, and other social events were played out on Shuter’s Hill. Sadly, Col. Lee’s wife died in 1795. In 1799, he sold the property to Benjamin Dulaney.
During this period, the newly-formed Federal government was searching for a permanent home. In July 1790, the U.S. Congress passed the Residence Act, designating a one hundred square mile area between Maryland and Virginia as the federal district.
Despite a persistent rumor, there is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson, or anyone else, ever recommended Shuter’s Hill to become the site of the U.S. Capitol. It is true, however, that the milestones that mark the boundary of the District of Columbia were set in place beginning in 1791. The first of them—the cornerstone of the District—was ceremonially placed by the Alexandria Freemasons at Jones Point on April 15, 1791. The third stone, traveling northwest, was placed at the bottom of Shuter’s hill, near what is now the intersection of Russell Road and King Street. The original is lost, but a replacement remains on display.
With the new century came a new owner of the hill, Benjamin Dulaney (1752–1815). He was a third-generation Irish American, and had been a good friend of George Washington. Dulaney married Elizabeth French, who was Washington’s ward, and together they had a large family of twelve children. They expanded the Ludlow home into a grand mansion, similar to Mount Vernon to their south and Arlington House to their north.
Besides being a highly active and civic minded businessman, Dulaney was a member of the Masonic Lodge at Alexandria, both when it was number 39 and 22. He was present when the Lodge elected Washington an honorary member in 1784, and was at the U.S. Capitol’s cornerstone ceremony in 1793. Benjamin Dulaney passed away in 1815. When his wife Elizabeth died in 1824, she willed the property to her sons. It was her grandson, Henry Dulaney, who eventually purchased most of the hill.
Between 1829 and Henry’s death in 1839, the mansion house was further expanded, and a large herd of Durham cows grazed the hill. Besides the extended family and Alexandria neighbors, many travelers enjoyed the Dulaneys’ hospitality. Regretfully, the grand mansion burned to the ground in 1840. (Interestingly, recent archaeological excavations have discovered foundations connected to the mansion and its outbuildings.) After the fire, Henry’s widow came to erect a smaller cottage, and turned the rest of the hill over for agriculture and the occasional community celebration of Independence Day and other events.
In 1850, Alexandrians determined to create a public water works. Benjamin Halloway was selected to undertake the enterprise and he selected the southern portion of Shuter’s Hill as the primary reservoir. By 1852 water was flowing through pipes down the hill into citizens’ homes. The reservoir continued to serve the city until the late-1990s when Virginia American Water opened a new water treatment plant.
The Civil War transformed the western half of Shuter’s Hill. In 1861, the U.S. Army built a series of forts to defend the Federal District. Fort Ellsworth was named after Col. Elmer Ellsworth, who had been killed by a Confederate sympathizer in Alexandria. This fort (illustrated on page 5) protected the western approaches and overlooked the Cameron Run valley. During this time, the hill was stripped of all trees and vegetation, not just for firewood and construction materials, but to ensure clear fields of fire for the fort’s large cannon. Fortunately, the fort never fired a shot in anger, and soon after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865, it was decommissioned. Impressions of its bastions can still be seen in the grass of the Memorial’s west grounds.
After the War and through the rest of the 1800s, the hill, like the city of Alexandria, slowly recovered its health and vigor. The city’s water reservoirs were repaired and expanded, trees and flowers regrew, and children and adults again played there throughout the seasons. By 1900, the Alexandria Golf Club was formed. A links course was laid out and a clubhouse erected that hosted dances, dinners, and ladies’ afternoon teas.
The hill was so popular that in 1908, real estate developers who had purchased 140 acres (including those still owned by the Dulaney family) proposed dividing the hill in half. The western half would be parceled into over 250 residential lots, and the eastern half would become George Washington Park. By 1909, plans and funding for the park were well-advanced with plans drawn up for a Washington statue, revenue raised through the sale of commemorative coins and the full support of local and national politicians.
Also in 1909, the Wright Brothers demonstrated their airplane to the War Department at Fort Myer in nearby Arlington. On his fourteen-minute flight, Orville Wright flew over and around Shuter’s hill—much to the astonishment of a sizable and stunned crowd (see photo on page 6).
The next year, delegates from many American Grand Lodges met at Alexandria-Washington Lodge and agreed to form the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association. The Lodge wished to leave its rooms in City Hall and build its own temple. In preparation to move, the brethren had purchased lots on Shuter’s Hill.
How the George Washington Park project collapsed is unknown. In 1915, the real estate developers sold twenty-eight acres of the eastern slope to the city. The next year, with sufficient money and adequate lots purchased, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association officially selected the Shuter’s Hill as the site for its Memorial. The City of Alexandria then sold its twenty-eight acres to the Association with the stipulation that a Memorial be built within ten years. The Memorial Association’s 1917 Annual Report included a striking description of why the hill was selected:
On every hand the view stretches away for miles and the panorama, near and distant, including places, objects, and landmarks that are indissoluble associated with our country’s history and that are calculated to arouse the enthusiasm and inspire the zeal of all who appreciate American citizenship and glory in the achievements of our fathers.
Between 1916 and 1921, the Memorial Association continued to purchase further lots, culminating in the procurement of the final piece of eight acres previously offered to the city. Today, the Memorial Association owns nearly thirty-seven acres.
With the land, the leadership, and the financial support secured, Louis Watres and Charles Callahan broke ground on Shuter’s Hill on June 5, 1922. Over the next seventeen months, tens of thousands of tons of earth were removed and graded as construction began and preparations started for the Cornerstone ceremony slated for November 5, 1923.
Today, as for thousands of years, the hill remains. But now it is dedicated to George Washington. In 1923, Louis Watres proclaimed: “ . . . were our memorial to him as enduring as the pyramids, it could not exceed the esteem in which we hold him in our hearts . . . .”