7 June 2011

The grave of John Wesley Powell

Posted by Callan Bentley

Charles Walcott isn’t the only famous geologist buried inside the Beltway. There is also the legendary John Wesley Powell, one-armed Civil War veteran, chief of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology, second director of the US Geological Survey, and of course, the leader of one of the four great western survey expeditions, the one that explored the Colorado River (including the Grand Canyon) for the first time. Powell is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, and yesterday I took the opportunity to visit his grave and pay my respects.

My fiancĂ©e Lily joined me, and we made a several hour adventure out of it. Originally, I intended to take a Capitol Bikeshare bike down there, but then looking at the map of bikeshare stations made me change my mind — there is a huge hole in the middle of the bikeshare station cloud, centered on the cemetery:

So we suited up in our running clothes, and took the Metro to the Arlington National Cemetery stop. We walked up the hill, past Arlington House (Robert E. Lee’s home, with a terrific view over downtown DC), and found Lot 1, where Powell is buried. Then we searched for about 5 minutes, and Lily found the stone. This is what it looks like:

Here is a gigapan of it, hand shot and stitched with the new Microsoft ICE program:

“Soldier, Explorer, Scientist.” That sums him up well.

Powell’s wife, Emma, is buried here too.

The gravestone is of a medium-toned potassic granite, which makes it kind of hard to read the letters of the engraving due to insufficient contrast. On the back of the stone, where Powell’s military service is detailed, you can hardly make it out at all, unless you get at a certain angle which emphasizes the relief and de-emphasizes the color:

One thing which struck me as distinctive about the monument is that it featured Powell’s portrait on a oval-shaped copper plate:

This is an interesting choice, because in paying tribute to someone’s entire life, the choice must be made of what age to represent him or her in the “final portrait.” Here they went with a reasonable choice — the iconic scowling Powell of his USGS director days, when he battled with Congress over water rights and was ultimately forced out by Congress (clearing the way for Charles Walcott’s ascent to the position). It may not be the most serene of portraits, but it definitely captures the ferocity of the man who faced war, wilderness, and politicians throughout his long and adventurous life.

Rest in peace, Major Powell.

After we had paid our respects, Lily and I walked downhill, visiting the grave of President John F. Kennedy along the way, and then exited the cemetery, meaning it would now be acceptable to start exercising. We ran over Memorial Bridge, past the Lincoln Memorial, and up past the Kennedy Center and the Watergate to the Rock Creek Valley and its bikepath. Eventually, this brought us to the Zoo, and we were the last people of the day to go through the Amazonia exhibit (walking again, not running), checking out the stingrays and arapaima and monkeys and a pair of displaying sun bitterns. We couldn’t find the sloth, but then again, in ten years of going to Amazonia, I’ve never seen the sloth… A good reason to keep coming back! All in all, a very cool little afternoon adventure in DC!