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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m a historian in Stafford and have long been fascinated by the county’s freestone industry. In 1786 George Brent sold one acre of the island to Robert Steuart of Baltimore. The deed for that conveyance survives in the county courthouse. In late 1791 Brent sold the remaining part of the island to B. H. Latrobe, acting as agent for the government. When Robert Steuart died in 1826, the quarry passed to his son, William Steuart (1780-1839). He willed that the quarry lot be divided between his two sons. By 1847, Thomas Alexander Hambleton Symington (1793-1875) was operating this quarry. He married Angelina Steuart (died c.1860) who, presumably, was a daughter of one of the Steuart men who had owned it. Thanks to Union vandals during the Civil War, Stafford has almost no court records dating from the 1840s. Do you know anything about Thomas A. H. Symington or Angelina Steuart or how Symington came to be running the island quarry?
You might also be interested in knowing that Robert Steuart owned another piece of quarry land in Stafford. This was about a mile or so west of the island and on Rocky Run. Thanks.
Thomas Symington was my paternal ancestor. He married Angeline Stewart, daughter of Col. William Steuart. Thomas continued his father-inlaw’s interest at Aquila. They are buried at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.
Let me know if you want more information on Thomas Symington and cheers to you. M
Sorry about spelling mistakes