What Happened To The Giants of Fairmount Park?

 

Hexagonal basalts forming Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland | Image via WikiCommons

Hexagonal basalts forming Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland | Image via WikiCommons

Arm and torch of Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty at Centennial, 1876 | Image: Robert Dennis collection of stereoscopic images (via WikiCommons)

Arm and torch of Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty at Centennial, 1876 | Image: Robert Dennis collection of stereoscopic images (via WikiCommons)

The lower right arm and torch of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World) arrived in America for the Centennial International Exhibition world’s fair of 1876. The pieces were dismantled in Paris, crated and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, then erected at the fair in Fairmount Park under Bartholdi’s supervision. (It was dedicated on Liberty Island, N.Y., in 1886.)

The Centennial, with its main building the largest structure in the world, drew all kinds of monumental items, including the massive Corliss steam engine, and works of art, architecture, and industry from the U.S. and Europe. Among the most interesting was a set of columns of the Giant’s Causeway from the coast of Northern Ireland. While it isn’t certain that the columns were brought to Philadelphia for the Centennial, evidence suggests it is likely.

The Giant’s Causeway is a zone of about 40,000 interlocking basalt pillars that formed as the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. Most of the columns are hexagonal, although there are also some with four, five, seven and eight sides. The tops form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea at the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. Hence, they are reminiscent of a bridge or causeway.

The pillars were created when highly fluid molten basalt intruded through chalk beds to form an extensive lava plateau. Contraction occurred as the lava cooled. Horizontal contraction fractured the lava in a similar way to drying mud, with the cracks propagating downward, leaving closely-packed pillar-like structures. The tallest columns are about 40 feet high.

Giant’s Causeway in Philadelphia: from the Evening Public Ledger, March 17, 1917 | Photo: Fairmount Park Historic Resource Archives, courtesy Allison Sharkey and Rob Armstrong

According to Irish legend, the pillars are the remains of a passageway to Scotland built by the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool). Fionn accepted a challenge to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. Fionn defeats Benandonner in one version of the story. In another, Fionn realizes that Benandonner is too big for him and hides, having his wife disguise him as a baby. When Benandonner sees the size of the “baby,” he reckons that its father must be a giant among giants. He flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him. Another story, this one rooted in Irish mythology, posits Fionn mac Cumhaill not as a giant but as a hero with supernatural abilities. The causeway may have been originally associated with the “stepping stones of the Fomhóraigh.” The Fomhóraigh were a race of supernatural beings in Irish mythology who were sometimes described as giants and who may have originally been part of a pre-Christian pantheon.

Evidence suggests that at least one column of this phenomenon of nature may have been moved to West Fairmount Park for the Centennial Exposition of 1876. In her 1892 travelogue Snap Notes of an Eastern Trip, Fannie de C. Miller wrote that she saw a Causeway pillar during her visit through the former fairgrounds: “Here, also, is a basaltic column from the Giant’s Causeway, Ireland, duly inscribed.” But there is no information as to how this particular column got to Philadelphia or what happened to it (or its duly inscribed marker).

To further add to the mystery, the 1922 book Ritttenhouse Square, Past and Present reported that in 1849, Irish textile maker William Divine (1800-1870) bought a four-story house at 18th and Locust Streets that had a garden which eventually had, in the center, “two stones from the Giant’s Causeway.” In addition, some Causeway stones wound up in the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences along the way.

By about 1901, part of the land containing the Giant’s Causeway fell into the hands of a stone company. The firm made a fortune shipping tons of Causeway pillars to American cities for display. Consequently, in 1907 a consignment of two hundred tons of basaltic columns was shipped to Philadelphia via a White Star freight steamer.

After these Causeway columns were installed in West Fairmount Park, they were noted in several editions of the Descriptive Souvenir of Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, Pa put out by the Fairmount Park Guard Pension Fund Association through the second decade of the 20th Century. An Evening Public Ledger image, dated March 17, 1917, provided to me by the Fairmount Park Historic Resource Archives, shows that the pillars were known well enough for them to appear in newspaper stories. The caption reads: “A Transplanted Bit of Old Ireland—Portion of the Giants’ Causeway, one of the monuments adorning Fairmount Park, near the base of George’s Hill.”

The Fairmount Park Guard Pension Fund books specifically mention that the site of these 1907 columns was a “quarter mile east of [the] Fifty-Second Street entrance [to Fairmount Park], between [the] Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain and [the] West Park guard house.” (The West Park guard house was located northeast of 52nd Street.) The 1917 photo shows the 1907 columns enclosed with a iron fence; figures of the Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain–installed for the Centennial Exhibition–appear in the background. (The top of the statue of Moses peeks over the pillars.)

Phillies fan Stephanie Marum at Giant's Causeway; did she return the Centennial columns to Northern Ireland? | Image courtesy of Stephanie Marum and Pete Mohan

Phillies fan Stephanie Marum at Giant’s Causeway; did she return the Centennial columns to Northern Ireland? | Image courtesy of Stephanie Marum and Pete Mohan

Taken altogether, the place where the 1907 Causeway pillars were located was near George’s Hill, between Centennial Lake and where the Mann Center for the Performing Arts is today, not far from the Avenue of the Republic. They were apparently right along Fountain Avenue, which is, today, an overgrown yet impressive footpath leading from the new Horticultural Center to the Mann Center.

There is no remnant of Philadelphia’s 1907 Causeway columns today. Aerial photos of West Fairmount Park, while not conclusive, indicate that the monument was removed as far back as the 1940s. However, the columns are casually referenced in the 1974 Fairmount Park: A History and a Guidebook, by Esther M. Klein.

The transfer of such large chunks of the Giant’s Causeway to places in America caused widespread indignation in Northern Europe in the early twentieth century. A widely-reproduced Scientific American article in 1908 commented, in relation to the Causeway stones, that “America is fast becoming a great museum and it will be incomplete unless several of the natural as well as the artistic curiosities of Europe are to be found here.” In 1907, the New York Times reported that a Dublin newspaper declared that “the American vandal knows no respect for things or men, ancient buildings, beauty spots or places with historic associations.” (The Irish paper was under the impression that Americans were trying to bring all of the Giant’s Causeway over to America to reconstruct it at some unnamed place. The story, however, was apparently a hoax.) Meanwhile, back in Northern Ireland, the courts ruled that the pillars legally belonged to the stone company that owned the ground, so there was little anyone could do about the sale of the pillars.

Another photo of the 1907 Irish columns of Philadelphia, from the Evening Public Ledger, March 18, 1915 | Photo: Library of Congress.

In spite of all this, the Giant’s Causeway became a respected and revered site in Northern Ireland and was attracting an estimated 80,000 visitors per year by the early 20th century. The Causeway was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, and a National Nature Reserve in 1987 by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland. The Giant’s Causeway is today owned and managed by Northern Ireland’s National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty and is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland.

But what happened to Philadelphia’s Irish basaltic columns? Besides being valued in Northern Ireland from whence they came, the stone monuments were an interesting piece of Philadelphia’s landscape for at least fifty years. Did the pillars crumble under their own weight in their new yet alien setting? Or were they removed by some unfeeling contractor who did not appreciate their history and status? Or were they carefully moved, for preservation purposes, to other parts of the city (and beyond)? Are any of the Giant’s Causeway of Philly still around?

When I wrote about the long-gone Indian Pole and the mermaids along Penn’s Landing, I raised comparable questions. The sudden removal of public monuments and works of art always leaves a small void in the history of a city that, along with other instances, winds up being a sort of death by a thousand cuts. Philadelphia has been the scene of many such stories.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011) and Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2000 titles new and old.



5 Comments


  1. Probably not too far fetched to think that these columns are laying down nearby, half burried and otherwise covered, in one of the many overgrown patches of our formerly landscaped Great Park. Or that they were used as structural fill in the construction of the Mann.

  2. I am a docent at Rockwood Museum and we have or had a set of stones in the garden that we were told were brought there by a family member who had lived in Ireland. Now I am wondering if they were part of the sale of stones in this story???

  3. Hi Harry, thanks for this great piece. It solves a mystery for me (at least in part)! My name is Andy and I worked as a researcher for the National Trust into the history of the Giant’s Causeway.

    In our new exhibition at the Giant’s Causeway we have a column shaped suitcase with old fashioned luggage labels, indicating all the places we know of so far where Causeway rocks have ended up! We encourage our visitors to send us any sightings when they get home (via our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/GiantsCausewayNationalTrust), so we can add new stickers over time.

    I hope you don’t mind if I fill you and your readers in on a little bit of the history from this end?

    For as long as people have known about the Giant’s Causeway they have been moving the rocks – starting with Finn the Giant himself of course!. However they really started to travel the globe after the place was ‘discovered’ in the late 1600s, and began to be investigated by natural philosophers (precursors to today’s chemists and physicists) in Dublin and London. These men were intensely curious about the strange regular shapes – were they fossils? Had the rocks been carved by some ancient civilization? These early investigators had pieces cut out and shipped so they could study them.

    By the 1850s the Causeway had become a mass tourist attraction and visitors wanted rocks as curios, mementoes and decorative objects. This was an extra source of income for the local guides, who cut and ‘boxed’ the stones during the winter months.

    While the rocks had once seemed like a limitless resource, by the late 1800s concerns were increasing about overexploitation. In your piece you mention a company which acquired the Giant’s Causeway in 1901. It was known as the ‘Giant’s Causeway Company’ but in actual fact it wasn’t much interested in selling pieces of rock. Instead the Company’s plan was to enclose the rock columns with cast iron railings and charge visitors to walk on them. There was a major legal case to try and stop the company. During the court proceedings the company actually used the fact that rocks had been being removed in an unregulated way as one of the reasons why they should be allowed to take over. The Company won and got their railings – and fewer rocks were taken from that point onwards.

    Then in 1907 there was indeed a scandal when it was alleged that the Causeway was to be quarried out in its entirety, removed to Philadelphia and set up in a public park. A correspondent from the Northern Whig newspaper had visited and heard about the dastardly scheme from Causeway locals. Outraged headlines like the one you mentioned (“American Vandals Busy!”) followed in the Belfast and Dublin papers, which were in turn picked up by the Manchester Guardian and New York Times.

    The only problem is, as far as we can establish, the story was a hoax. A week later a journalist from local paper, The Constitution carried out his own tongue-in-cheek investigation:

    “Here was a plot to ship the Causeway to America and make filthy lucre out of the sale. Nature’s masterpiece was to be destroyed!… I proceeded to the Causeway [yet]…. there were no pickaxes, cranes, levers or packing cases about…I begged the caretaker to allow me to look through his house. ‘With pleasure’ he said and smiled… I went carefully over the premises, up stairs and down, looked behind he doors, and under the beds, but saw nothing to justify my suspicions…”

    The story arose because the confusingly named ‘Causeway Columnar Basalt Company’ – a separate business – was considering exporting basalt aggregate to North America from its quarries inland. It never mined at the Giant’s Causeway itself.

    While the whole Causeway may not have ended up travelling to Pennsylvania, that’s not to say individual rocks or columns didn’t. Your research and photos prove that at least a handful of columns made it to Fairmount Park. We already have one sticker in our exhibition for Philadelphia – to mark the fact that the folks at the Academy of Natural Sciences have some Causeway rocks in their collection. We know of some other places in the U.S. with pieces too:

    • The Hibernian Society Hall, Charleston, SC – have a beautiful complete column on their portico
    • The John F Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston, MA – sadly he didn’t visit the Causeway, but President Kennedy received a gift of a piece of Causeway rock mounted on a wooden plinth when he was on his visit to Ireland 50 years ago
    • Somewhere in Cincinnati, OH – we have a record of a Mr Henry Probasco actually placing an ‘order’ for a collection of rocks – “August 12th 1867 – 1 Block each 3,4,5,6,7,8,9 sides, £15.0.0 for the 7 blocks, as many as possible, three feet long. Henry Probasco, Cincinnati Ohio”

    Thanks again for your piece. Thanks also to Ned Gilmore at the ANSP who alerted me to it. Please do let me know if you or anyone else tracks the Causeway stones down, or indeed if you find any more info about them. We’ll happily take them back (provided you pay the shipping)! No seriously do let me know, I’m sure the National Trust will be delighted to add the story to the tours they provide for visitors to our amazing natural wonder.

    • Thanks for the added info on the Giant’s Causeway–both in Northern Ireland and here in Philly! Other than the two comments to the story, there is little to go on as to what happened to Philadelphia’s Causeway stones! I’ll be in touch if I learn more. And thanks for adding my Philadelphia story to your tours!

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