But Ours Is Taller

A visit to the recently reopened Washington Monument prompts a reassessment of Houston's own obelisk.

By Andrew Husband October 30, 2014

San Jacinto Museum of History
One Monument Circle
La Porte

In 2011, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck Virginia, about 84 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. In its aftermath, National Park Service inspectors found over 150 cracks in the Washington Monument, including a rather prominent one at the very top, and advised closing the monument to the public until the necessary alterations were made. Most of 2012 and 2013 found the famous obelisk covered in scaffolding and lighting for the repair crew's benefit.

The monument finally reopened in May, and I considered visiting it a top priority when I visited the nation’s capital for the first time last month. Repairs finished and scaffolding removed, there was nothing to stop me from enjoying an iconic piece of American history. Nothing except for my father. Standing at the monument's flag-encircled base, I gave him a call to tell him where I was and what I was doing.

“The San Jacinto Monument's taller, you know,” he said. 

My father is a frequent prankster and teller of tall tales, so I ignored his comment and decided to fact-check his comment later. Turns out he wasn't joking. Completed in 1884 after almost 40 years of construction, the Washington Monument stands at 555 feet, making it the world's tallest stone structure but only the third tallest monument column after the San Jacinto Monument and North Korea's Juche Tower (although we have to rely on the famously modest North Koreans for that measurement). Completed in 1939, the San Jacinto Monument, located along the Houston Ship Channel in La Porte, soars to a majestic 567 feet—over 10 feet higher than its Washington D.C. cousin. (Our state capital is also taller than the US Capital, but you already knew that.) 

Comparing the two monuments provides a great opportunity to boast, and, as my father's comment indicates, there's nothing more Texan than that. The D.C. monument was built to commemorate our nation's first president. Wooden dentures aside, he wasn't that bad a guy and surely deserved an imposing, minimalist stone structure dedicated to his memory. But why celebrate a single man, when you can celebrate an entire army? Built on the site of the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive confrontation in the Texas Revolution, Houston's own obelisk-like monument needed the extra 11 feet to accommodate the memory of all 800 army members and their esteemed leader, General Sam Houston.

There's also the matter of money and time. Adjusted for inflation, the $200,000 appropriated in 1848 by Congress for the Washington Monument is the equivalent of $70.3 million in today’s dollars. After construction delays, financially crippling political squabbles, and a civil war, construction crews finally completed the obelisk in 1884. In comparison, the San Jacinto Monument was built quickly and on the cheap—it cost the modern-day equivalent of $25 million, a steal by any measure. Plus, Houston's own W.S. Bellows Construction finished the job in three years. Federal government? We don’t need no federal government.

Houstonians are definitely proud of their monument. It attracts around 200,000 visitors each year, including bus after bus of children from area schools. And while visiting a historical site probably isn’t their idea of a good time, there are a few genuinely cool things about the monument. Like the gigantic, 220-ton Lone Star atop the monument column. All the Washington Monument has is a point. We have a freakin’ star.

There's also a battleship. An actual, used-to-blow-stuff-up-with-big-guns battleship, now sadly decommissioned, docked in the Houston Ship Channel. You can go on board the Battleship Texas and walk around. Is the Washington Monument guarded by a battleship? No it is not.

In all seriousness, both are truly wonderful monuments, marvels of engineering and fitting tributes to the people and events they were built to memorialize. 

But ours is taller, you know


Show Comments