21 May 2011

The grave of Charles Walcott

Posted by Callan Bentley

Okay, here’s a quick quiz: Charles Doolittle Walcott was… (a) the third director of the U.S. Geological Survey, (2) the fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, (c) discoverer of the Burgess Shale, or (d) all of the above.

The answer is “d,” of course. Walcott was an extraordinary man who achieved great things, and is a bit of a hero to me. I knew that he was buried in Washington, D.C., but I had never made the time to visit his grave until this week.But the semester is over, and summer travels haven’t yet begun, so it’s an ideal time to go pay my respects. Last Friday was the day I made it happen.

Walcott’s grave is a short distance from my home, in the Rock Creek Cemetery. I took a Capitol Bikeshare bike up to the Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metro station, and then walked northwest on Rock Creek Church Road for about a mile. If you want to go there yourself, here’s a map. You could also get there pretty easily from the Fort Totten Metro station (red, yellow, and green line trains). I brought up the Wikipedia photo of the gravestone on my iPhone, and used the landmarks in the background of that image to triangulate, and it took me all of five minutes to find it.

This is what it looks like:

Here’s a gigapan version, hand shot and Photoshop-stitched, so you can explore the details on your own:

The gravestone is granite. I guess I was hoping for something more exotic, but I guess it would be pretty silly to make one’s tombstone from a big chunk of the Burgess Shale itself. Here’s a closer look at the texture:

Walcott is not alone. With him at this site are two of his three wives* (sequential, not polygamist) and his son CDW, Jr.

* I think. Wikipedia lists the name of Walcott’s second wife as Helena Stevens Walcott (d. 1911),and their daughter as Helen Breese Walcott (1894-1965), so I presume the stone you see above marks the resting place of the second wife, but I’m confused by the difference in the listed middle names. Where is the “Burrows” coming from? Anyone able to shed any light on this discrepancy?

Here’s a photo of the Walcott family in Provo, Utah, in ~1907:

Image source: the Smithsonian’s Flickr photostream, which appears to be the source for the Wikipedia information. I just ordered a copy of Ellis Yochelson’s biography of Walcott, so hopefully I’ll be able to tell you more after I read it.

Lily and I are planning to go to the Walcott Quarry (where the Burgess Shale comes from) in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada, later this summer, and I felt like I ought to pay homage to Mr. Walcott before I left town on that pilgrimage… I’m glad I did.