Many might not know it, but the Bunker Hill Monument came down to eight guys and a hearty breakfast.
Knowing that the hill in Charlestown was hallowed ground, and not content with the makeshift wooden marker that was there, they gathered at the home of Col. Perkins in Boston on May 10, 1823. They were worried that the land in Charlestown where the historic battle took place would be lost to development if they didn’t act.
It was an amazing moment that gave birth to another amazing movement to get the current Monument – the defining symbol of Charlestown – funded and built with private dollars and private efforts.
“They agreed to begin raising money to buy the land,” said Secretary David Hennessey. “They agreed that if the land wasn’t acquired soon, it was going to become residential. They each donated $5 for a total of $40 to get things started. The Legislature then recognized them as a private organization with the objection of preserving the battle grounds and contributing to build a monument to memorialize the birth of a nation. A big point to be made is that we lost the battle. I don’t know of any monument built to honor a battle that was lost. We won the war, but we lost that battle.”
That effort morphed into the Bunker Hill Monument Association (BHMA), and it boasts in its membership U.S. presidents, dignitaries, governors and other important officials – as well as neighbors who live near and take care of the Monument. Last year, Attorney General Maura Healey, a Winthrop Square resident, excitedly accepted her nomination to be in the BHMA.
President Arthur Hurley said they have about 500 members in the roles, but historically they do count as members and honorary members 11 U.S. presidents, 30 generals, 20 admirals, 20 mayors of Boston, and more than 500 distinguished clergy, doctors and lawyers.
It is a prestigious organization founded to fund the private building of the Monument, and to make sure the date of June 17 is remembered and celebrated every year correctly.
This Sunday, on June 17, the exercises, lunch and annual meeting of the BHMA will take place as it has since that groundbreaking breakfast.
The first big mission of the BHMA was to build the Monument, and once that was completed, the major function of the organization was to keep records, maintain their collection of artifacts and to proceed with the yearly commemoration of the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17.
The motto of the organization is the “Importance of Remembrance,” and that is accomplished each year on June 17.
One of the most interesting stories about the Bunker Hill Monument – which is now a national park in federal government hands – is that it was built and completed as a grass-roots effort by the people. There was no government money involved and the land was purchased with private fund as well.
Also, the BHMA operated the Monument and collected revenues from visitors for 77 years before they turned it over to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to manage. In 1976, the state turned it over to the federal government to be part of the National Parks.
But the birth of the Monument and its earliest days were a private affair – not unlike the actual battle itself.
“It was a private organization so there was no state or federal funding,” said Hennessey. “It was the effort of this small group of people collecting money for many years. People didn’t have money and weren’t used to donating money. They had a lot of trouble getting the money to do this. They did purchase 15 acres right away on Breed’s Hill, but the monument funds came slower.”
Some of the things they did to raise money included selling off all but four acres of the land around the Monument area to builders for residential buildings in 1839. That netted a huge amount of money for the cause, and formed the Monument Square neighborhood.
But there were also others who made individual contributions. Those people included Judah Touro of Holland, who donated $10,000; and Amos Lawrence who donated $10,000 in his will.
But it was the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Ladies Book literary magazine, that made the greatest difference. Using the pen and some influence in high society, she was able to promote the Monument cause and during a seven-day fair at Quincy Market, raised $33,035 for the BHMA.
By 1843, the Monument was going up, and it was officially dedicated on June 17, 1843. It is said that at least one million visitors came to the dedication to celebrate the occasion, including General Lafayette of France – whose society comes frequently to the Monument to dig up a piece of the ground to be placed from time to time on his grave in France.
The towering Monument one sees today will celebrate its 175th birthday this Sunday, June 17.
Treasurer Tom Coots said on each occasion of remembrance, he’s struck by the foresight of those who got together in 1823 to make sure no one forgot the bravery of those who dared to fight back against tyranny.
“The foresight they had amazes me,” he said. “At that time, this was one of the first significant monuments in the U.S. It blows my mind every year to think about what they started. They had the forethought and ability to build a perpetual monument to freedom. That’s extraordinary. I don’t think there would be a Monument without the BHMA.”