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The Admiral's Memorial


Patrick Scalisi

A Knights of Columbus honor guard stands in front of the Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain in Washington, D.C., during ceremonies on Columbus Day 2011.

Commanding the front entrance of Union Station in Washington, D.C., on a roadway known appropriately as Columbus Circle, is a marble and granite memorial designed to inspire both patriotism and awe in the 90,000 people who pass through Washington’s major transportation hub each day. Rising 45 feet in front of the arched façade of the adjacent train station, the Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain has stood for the past century as a tribute to the ingenuity and perseverance that led to the discovery of the New World.

Unveiled June 8, 1912, the Columbus Memorial was six years in the making and was fostered by the Order from the very beginning.

Knights pushed for the memorial’s construction more than a century ago. Although the Order was less than 25 years old and had only 143,000 members at the time, the Knights successfully lobbied Congress to build the monument, which today would cost around $2.4 million.


Unveiled June 8, 1912, the Columbus Memorial was six years in the making and was fostered by the Order from the very beginning.

In January 1906, U.S. Rep. Joseph A. Goulden introduced a bill written by Joseph Paul Burg of Potomac Council 433 that called for the creation of a memorial to Columbus in Washington, D.C. The Supreme Council advocated for passage of the bill, which was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt on March 4, 1907, with Congress appropriating $100,000 for the project.

For years, the Order had pushed for increased recognition of its patron. Knights lobbied for Columbus Day to be adopted as a national holiday, and Thomas Harrison Cummings, a member of the Knights in the 1890s, wrote and lectured widely about the explorer. A primary goal of these initiatives was to combat anti-Catholic sentiment by highlighting the contribution that Catholics had made to the discovery of the New World.

In 1892, Columbianism peaked during the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. The Supreme Council organized a massive parade in New Haven, Conn., to commemorate the quadricentennial, and monuments to the explorer were erected around the world, including places like Druid Hill Park in Baltimore and Columbus Circle in New York. Columbus’ visage was not unknown in Washington, either. At the time — as today — the admiral was featured prominently in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and in the doors leading to this great room. But the city lacked a large public memorial to the explorer, and the Knights felt that the Columbus artwork at the Capitol was inadequate to “express the national sense of gratitude” that Columbus was due.

President William H. Taft delivers his address at the unveiling June 8, 1912. • Workers take a break during the memorial’s construction and installation. • A model of the memorial by sculptor Lorado Taft. • A statue of Columbus crowns the center of the memorial.

As a result, the successful push to create the memorial was an early victory for the growing Knights of Columbus. Delegates to the 1911 Supreme Convention set aside $10,000 for a celebration at the unveiling, and jurisdictions throughout the Order formed “On To Washington Clubs” to facilitate the travel of attendees.


Few events in the history of the Order have matched the majesty of the Columbus Memorial unveiling. Thousands of Knights attended, along with a legion of Fourth Degree members. The unveiling also attracted many dignitaries: President William H. Taft, members of Congress and their families, ambassadors from Germany, Japan, Italy and Britain, and Msgr. Thomas J. Shahan, who was rector of The Catholic University of America and later an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Arriving in Washington June 7 for the weekend celebration, members of the Supreme Council made a pilgrimage to the tomb of George Washington, followed by a public reception.

The next day, countless people poured into the capital city’s streets, and Denis A. McCarthy reported in The Columbiad that, “Every possible vantage point was filled with spectators. Windows, ledges, porticos, stairways and other portions of the Treasury were black with clerks watching the marchers, and thousands of persons were massed at the intersection of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.”

At 3 p.m., Knights joined marching bands, floats and military representatives for a parade through the streets of Washington, which had been decorated with patriotic flags and bunting. McCarthy described the military escort as being comprised of 2,500 soldiers and sailors, including Marines from three battleships. The army contingent marched with cavalry and field artillery.

“A very stirring picture they made, these representatives of the land and sea forces of the United States,” McCarthy wrote.

Other civic, fraternal and ethnic groups accompanied floats, which — not unexpectedly — depicted Columbus, and the entire parade ended at the reviewing stand of the president, who made remarks.

“It is most appropriate in this beautiful place in which the visitor to the country’s capital first sets foot … that he should be confronted by a statue of the great mariner whose genius and daring opened this half of the world to progress and development,” said President Taft to the thousands gathered. “In front of a railway terminal station combining utility and art in the highest degree, and brilliantly illustrating the progress of the human race in transportation, and in a plaza that by a graceful sweep leads the eye up to the home of liberty and popular power, Columbus may well have his greatest and most fitting memorial.”

Followed by a grand banquet of 1,200 people, the memorial’s unveiling did more than reveal a stunning tribute to the discoverer of the New World. It established the Knights in the public consciousness as a group that espoused patriotism through its Catholic roots.


Just as the Knights had a hand in building and unveiling the Columbus Memorial 100 years ago, so too is the Order associated with the monument today. Since 1971, Knights from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia have worked alongside the Daughters of the American Revolution and several Italian-American groups to hold a yearly celebration at the memorial. These groups formed what is now known as the National Columbus Celebration Association in 1989 to coordinate the annual event.

In addition, Knights are looking toward the memorial’s future.

Not unexpectedly, the 100-year-old monument is starting to show its age. Surveyed in 1994 by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the memorial has been listed for the past 18 years as “needing treatment.” The NCCA strongly supports any projects by the National Park Service that will restore the memorial to its original glory.

Knights will also participate in the memorial’s 100th anniversary at the annual Columbus Day celebration, which has been held at least since the 1930s. Preliminary plans for the weekend of Columbus Day call for special Masses, receptions and exhibits, as well as a program at the memorial on Oct. 8. (Information will be posted on kofc.org as it becomes available.)

Although the ceremony will likely not be as grandiose as the one that occurred 100 years ago, Knights remain as committed as ever to preserving and honoring the Order’s namesake. Much has changed in the past century, but the men of the Knights of Columbus remain the inheritors of a legacy that includes Catholicism’s role in the founding of America, a role that is epitomized in the marble and granite visage of the admiral who looks out over a capital of the land that he discovered.

For more information on the National Columbus Celebration Association, and on the annual Columbus Day celebration that is held at the memorial, visit columbuscelebration.com.


PATRICK SCALISI is the associate editor of Columbia magazine.