Sandstone, Canals, and The Smithsonian

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  • This article tells the story of how sandstone from quarries at Seneca, Maryland, came to be selected as the stone used for constructing the exterior of the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, D.C. The author begins by explaining how sandstone from the Seneca quarry in Maryland was used in two projects prior to its selection for use at the Smithsonian.
  • The first project was initiated by George Washington, who in 1772 began an effort to provide economic and political links between sections of the growing nation by opening the Potomac River to navigation from tidewater to Cumberland, Maryland. The legislatures of Maryland and Virginia enacted laws authorizing that action, and by May 1785, the Potomac Company was organized with Washington as its president. Construction of the Potomac Canal began that fall along the Virginia side. Sandstone blocks quarried in Seneca were used to build three of the five locks at Great Falls, and the other two used the stone to fit along blasted-out sections of the gorge to provide watertight locks.
  • Construction difficulties at Great Falls delayed the canal system's opening until 1802. By the 1820's, however, it was realized that constant maintenance and frequent closing due to inclement weather and financial problems would not allow for a viable transportation system. The author notes, however, that the red Seneca stones did not contribute to the difficulties, as a number of photographs accompanying the article show those stones, and ones utilized in the next canal-building venture, still firmly in place.
  • The second project using Seneca sandstone was another attempt to open the Potomac River to the west. Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal began in 1828 on the Maryland side of the river, and due to its durability and proximity of the quarries, that sandstone was chosen to build an aqueduct and sections of the canal. Engineering and financial difficulties delayed the opening of the canal until 1850, and while it was much more efficient than its predecessor, it also was not able to manage weather variations of the Potomac River, along with competition from the more dependable and rapid Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
  • In 1847, however, stones from the Seneca quarry were designated for use in a different type of project. Englishman James Smithson had left a bequest to the United States to found in Washington, D.C., under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an "establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Ten years after Smithson's bequest was accepted, the act to establish the Smithsonian was finally approved on August 10, 1846. A Board of Regents was appointed and in November of that year James Renwick, Jr., was selected as architect for the proposed Smithsonian building.
  • A three-member building committee was chosen, with Robert Dale Owen as chairman, and Washington, D.C. Mayor William W. Seaton and General J. G. Totten as members. The committee began its meetings on February 17, 1847, and within thirty days it had decided upon the materials to be used and awarded the contract for the building. To determine which building materials would meet its criteria for cost, durability and beauty, the committee retained the services of chemist Charles G. Page. The author describes at length the elaborate testing procedures Page undertook to reach the conclusion and on March 15 he reported to the committee that sandstone from the Seneca quarries would be the best building material for the new structure.
  • On March 16, 1847, the building committee opened bids for the construction of the Smithsonian Building. Various bids ranging from $196,000 to $318,000 were received; after further submissions of specific bids for sandstone and marble finishes, the James Dixon and Company's submission of a $205,250 bid for a finish of Seneca sandstone was selected. The committee was convinced that the Seneca stone would be durable and more appropriate than marble for the architectural style proposed by James Renwick.
  • On March 18, 1847, Chairman Owen informed the Seneca quarry owner of its decision. Owen and Renwick visited the quarry to choose the color of stone to be used. Contractor James Dixon wrote to the committee on April 8 to express his concern about there being a sufficient quantity of the desired colored stone, but the quarry owner insisted that the approved color was available. The committee therefore advised Renwick to adhere to its selections of color and quality of building materials for the external walls. By the spring of 1848, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company boats were floating Seneca stone to Washington, D.C., to begin the Smithsonian Institution Building's construction.


  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • Page, Charles Grafton 1812-1868
  • Seaton, William Winston 1785-1866
  • Owen, Robert Dale 1801-1877
  • Renwick, James 1818-1895
  • Washington, George 1732-1799
  • Dixon, James
  • Totten, Joseph Gilbert 1788-1864
  • Board of Regents
  • Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • Smithsonian Institution Building Early History
  • Seneca Quarry (Md.)
  • Potomac Red Sandstone Company, Seneca Stone Company
  • Potomac Company


Smithsonian History Bibliography


Seven photographs and one table accompany the article.

Contained within

The Smithsonian Journal of History Vol. 3, No. 1 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


Spring 1968


  • Smithson Bequest
  • Museum buildings
  • Sandstone buildings
  • Building materials
  • Architects
  • Architecture
  • Canals
  • Stones
  • SI, Early History
  • Construction (Buildings)
  • Stone buildings
  • Sandstone
  • Building


  • Potomac River
  • Potomac Canal (Va.)
  • Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (Md. and Washington, D.C.)
  • Maryland
  • Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

Number of pages : 18; Page numbers : 41-58

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