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Pic of the Week: Public Quarry on Government Island, Virginia

In Stafford County, about 45 miles southwest of Capitol Hill is a 17-acre park that is also on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the site from which the stone was quarried to construct part of the Capitol and White House, as well as many other Virginian buildings in the early 1800s.

The Public Quarry site. Photo by Fernando O. Gonzalez

The Public Quarry site. Photo by Fernando O. Gonzalez

Historical marker on Government Island: Site Selection. Photo by Fernando O. Gonzalez

Historical marker on Government Island: Site Selection. Photo by Fernando O. Gonzalez

 

George Washington had been a nearby resident in Stafford County during his childhood and sent Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant to find the best supply of freestone, now called Aquia Creek sandstone, to build the new federal capital city. The site was originally called Wigginton’s Island or Brent’s Island, but after Major L’Enfant purchased it on December 2, 1791, the site became known as the Public Quarry and today, Government Island.

R.S. carved on stone to show boundaries

Close-up image of carved initials. Photo by Fernando O. Gonzalez

 

 

 

The government did not buy the entire peninsula, however. George Brent sold the government what land he owned, which was all of the area except for a one acre section that belonged to Robert Steuart. Mr. Steuart did not sell his land to the government, so he marked his boundaries with stones carved with his initials, still visible today.

 

R.S. carved on stone to show boundaries

Initials on stone show R.S. boundary. Photo by Fernando O. Gonzalez

The sandstone was quarried and shipped from Aquia Creek up the Potomac River to the new capitol city. It was used to construct the north section of the north wing of the Capitol building and the White House.

North Wing and Portico of the U.S. Capitol (Senate end - East Front) ca. 1866. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //www.loc.gov/item/2004679771/

North Wing and Portico of the U.S. Capitol (Senate end – East Front) ca. 1866. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //www.loc.gov/item/2004679771/

View of the east front of the President's House.

The White House (“President’s House”) Washington, D.C. East front elevation / B H Latrobe 1807. S.P.B.U States. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //www.loc.gov/item/97505109/

 

Plaque on Government Island. Photo by Fernando O. Gonzalez

Plaque on Government Island. Photo by Fernando O. Gonzalez

 

Other stone was found to be more durable and sandstone fell out of use by the mid-1800s. The government sold the quarry in 1963, but the physical evidence of stone cutting and the quarrying techniques remain on Government Island. Now it is a Stafford County Park where you can see the plants and wildlife, take a short hike, and view this historic place that built our capital.

In 2002, the 107th Congress recognized the “national historical significance” of the quarries on Government Island “for their substantial contribution to the construction of the new Capital of the United States.” You can read House Resolution 261, the House Report, and the Congressional Record on Congress.gov.

3 Comments

  1. Nitpicker
    November 5, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    The photo of the “North Wing and Portico of the U.S. Capitol” is mostly of the 1865 Senate extension in marble, not the portion that would have been built with the Aquia stone (though sandstone likely forms the exterior walls of the old Senate wing, in the shadows on the left of the photo.)

    Per http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/architecture/sandstone, 40 percent of the east front sandstone was replaced with limestone in the 1980s.

  2. K Burns
    January 11, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Thank you so much for posting this! Robert Steuart is my 4th-great-grandfather. We knew he owned a piece of land on Aquia Creek, but we couldn’t find the property records and didn’t know if it was near Government Island or not. Now I know where it is and I have a picture! He was a stone-cutter and Freemason. His son was a Grand Master Freemason, temporarily mayor of Baltimore, and helped build the Washington Monument in Baltimore. I was so excited to see this on a Library of Congress page.

  3. David L. Wigginton
    December 5, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    I am a direct descendant of the Wiggintons of Wigginton Island aka as Government Island. VIRGINA Colonial records and family lore tell us that my 5th gr.grandmother and 3 of her children were killed by indians near the Aquia creek south of the island in 1697. Wigginton cousins have told me this was either at or near Sandy Level. Can any one contribute to this? I do know that the Wiggintons owned land either at or very close to Sandy Level as well as a significant tract of marsh land on the east side of the Aquia Creek.

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