Workers Renovating The Lincoln Memorial Unearthed A Vast Toxic Chamber Hidden Beneath The Monument

Two centuries after the foundation of the United States of America, arrangements are underway for a celebration like no other. While working on one of the country’s most famous monuments, workers make a jaw-dropping discovery. Deep beneath the Lincoln Memorial, a sprawling forgotten chamber is hiding a dark and dangerous secret.

Standing by the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., the Lincoln Memorial is one of the most recognizable landmarks in America. Past its marble columns, a vast statue of the 16th president of the United States sits in quiet contemplation, gazing out along the promenade known as the Mall. And millions of visitors flock here annually to pay their respects.

Famously called the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln was the president who delivered the Gettysburg Address at the close of the Civil War and helped to outlaw slavery in the U.S. Today, he’s counted among the finest commanders-in-chief the nation has ever known. And even though an assassin cut short his life more than 150 years ago, his image lives on in monuments such as the one in Washington, D.C.

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But for more than a century, something unexpected has been hiding in the ground beneath Lincoln’s feet. And while looking down at the darkness under the monument, workers discovered the fascinating truth. There, they found a buried chamber complete with eerie relics – and a toxic secret that stopped them in their tracks.

This strange discovery was an unlikely twist in the tale of a monument that’s kept watch over Capitol Hill since 1922. Now famous the world over, the landmark wasn’t always beloved. When the marshy site by the Potomac River was first selected, a politician named Joseph Cannon objected to the president being memorialized in such a glum, swampy location.

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The plans still went ahead, and work began on the Lincoln memorial during 1915. Sharing similarities with the ancient Greek Parthenon temple in Athens, the monument was designed by the renowned architect Henry Bacon. With it, he hoped to celebrate the nation’s 16th president, and the traits that made Lincoln one of the nation’s best-loved leaders.

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What Bacon couldn’t have known, though, was that Lincoln’s memorial would make headlines in a most unexpected way more than 100 years after its completion. And that happened partly because even today, the 16th president’s name is synonymous with the notions of justice and liberty that accompanied the founding of the United States.

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Born in Kentucky in February 1809, Abraham Lincoln was the grandson of English immigrants. Spending his youth in poverty in Indiana, the future president took it on himself to acquire an education despite his circumstances. And eventually he defied his humble beginnings to become one of the most influential politicians the world has ever seen.

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Relocating to Illinois as a young man, Lincoln had a number of jobs, including farm-work and stints on riverboats. But while his charisma and good nature made him popular, he couldn’t find a passion that stuck. Finally, in 1836 he settled on a career in law – a move that would ultimately lead him into politics.

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From Lincoln’s early days as a lawyer, his honesty and integrity won him both acclaim and social standing. But his attitudes and beliefs weren’t always in line with those of the people around him. While representing Illinois in Congress, for example, he put forward an unpopular bill designed to emancipate slaves – the first of many steps towards abolition.

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After being elected president in 1860 Lincoln embarked on an illustrious career that would cement his place in history for decades to come. But the same year as his inauguration, America was plunged into a civil war that changed the face of the nation for good. And while the southern Confederate States fought for their independence, the north battled to preserve the Union.

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As the figurehead of the Union states, Lincoln played a pivotal role in the Civil War. And when the tide of the conflict began to swing in his favor, he gave what’s regarded as one of history’s greatest speeches. Known as the Gettysburg Address, it commemorated the decisive Battle of Gettysburg and laid the foundations for American democracy in the years to come.

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With the close of the Civil War, another of Lincoln’s great legacies occurred: the abolition of slavery in the United States. Having already passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which technically declared all slaves free, the president went one step further with the 13th Amendment of 1865, banning the practice altogether. And even today, the 16th president is remembered as the man who tried to put an end to centuries of exploitation.

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Of course, Lincoln’s relationship with slavery was far from untainted. Though he’s been lauded as the Great Emancipator, he wasn’t actually an abolitionist himself. He even openly spoke out against notions of equality and interracial marriage. But – rightly or not – he’s mostly remembered as a hero, and this has been reflected in the monuments and memorials dedicated to him over the years.

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Just three months after the 13th Amendment was ratified, Lincoln was fatally shot while watching a play in Washington. His killer, John Wilkes Booth, had hoped to strike a blow for the Confederate forces and succeeded in becoming the first man to kill a president of the United States. And while the incident didn’t spark a return to the Civil War, it did send the nation into unprecedented mourning.

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The day after Lincoln’s death was Easter Sunday, and people flocked to churches up and down the country to share their grief and shock. Buildings were shrouded in dark fabrics and members of the black community mourned the passing of the man who’d become their champion. When the president’s body was eventually taken on a tour of the nation, hundreds of thousands of mourners turned out to pay their respects.

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At the time, it was one of the biggest displays of mourning that the United States had ever seen. Even today, that reverence is echoed in the way that Lincoln’s memory is treated, more than 150 years after his death. And when Bacon’s memorial was built, the foundations were laid for a whole new chapter in the 16th president’s story.

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Inarguably the most famous of the memorials dedicated to Lincoln, the completion of Bacon’s monument was marked by a ceremony on May 30, 1922. Attended by some 50,000 people, the event featured speakers including Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States, and Robert Moton from the historically black Tuskegee University. Despite the occasion, though, the latter was still forced to sit in a racially segregated area.

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At the front of the memorial, 36 columns represent the number of U.S. states that were in existence when Lincoln died in 1865. Crafted from Colorado marble, they tower above the Mall at some 44 feet tall. Engraved on the stone above are the names of all the contiguous states minus Alaska and Hawaii, which became states after the structure was built.

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Inside the memorial, a statue of Lincoln sits on a chair carved, like the image of the president, from Georgia marble. Designed by the sculptor Daniel Chester French, it stands at 19 feet tall and gazes down on visitors from a raised pedestal. And overlooking the imposing artwork, on the south wall, is a copy of the Great Emancipator’s famous Gettysburg Address.

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Located at the end of the long promenade known as the Mall, the Lincoln Memorial is one of the most-visited landmarks in Washington. It’s estimated that more than five million visitors climb up the steps and pass through the columns to marvel at French’s statue annually. And unbeknownst to them, an unnerving secret has been lurking beneath their feet the whole time.

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Because of Lincoln’s role in the Civil Rights struggle, his memorial has become a focal point for campaigning and protest over the years. In 1939, for example, the African American vocalist Marian Anderson sang in front of the monument when she was refused permission to appear at the city’s Constitution Hall.

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Then, 100 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, another turning point came in the battle for civil rights. And although the president had been dead for almost a century, his memorial still played a pivotal role in this historic moment. While standing on the steps of Bacon’s monument, the activist Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered the immortal words “I have a dream.”

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So Lincoln and his memorial have been intrinsically linked with some of the most important moments in American history over the years. And little looked set to change in 1975 when plans were underway to mark the bicentennial of the United States. The monument at the western end of the Mall was naturally due to play a key part in the celebrations.

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In preparation, officials decided that the bathrooms at the Lincoln Memorial were in need of an upgrade. But as construction crews set to work, they noticed something unexpected. Looking down into the darkness of the monument’s foundations, they spotted a forgotten chamber hidden beneath the ground.

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Intrigued, the workers got in touch with some pals who just happened to be members of the National Speleological Society. Before long, a team of enthusiastic cavers had arrived at the memorial, ready to explore the secrets lurking beneath its pink marble floor. And what they found stunned historians and onlookers alike.

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Buried beneath the Lincoln Memorial explorers discovered a vast underground chamber some 40 feet – or three stories – tall. It was so vast, in fact, that the speleologists considered it a cave system in its own right. With stalactites hanging from the ceiling, the cavern supported a living ecosystem replete with rodents and insects.

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But what was this hidden chamber, and how could it have existed secretly beneath one of America’s most famous landmarks for years? According to records, the space was created back in 1914, when workers were preparing the site for Bacon’s grand construction. In order to support the memorial, it seems, they needed to first dig deep underground.

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At the time, the muddy scrap of land where the Lincoln Memorial would eventually be constructed had undergone a dramatic transformation. For the past four decades, workers from the Army Corps of Engineers had been dredging the Potomac River, using landfill to create the landscape that visitors encounter today.

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Before work could begin on Bacon’s monument, the crew needed to dig 40 feet down into this new shoreline, creating a vast basement almost 44,000 square feet in size. When this task was complete, they laid concrete down into the chamber, forming columns that would ultimately be the foundations of the memorial above.

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Over the ensuing years, the basement was gradually covered up as the grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial took shape. And since then, it seems to have been a case of out of sight, out of mind. Somehow, this sprawling cavern beneath the ground was forgotten until workers stumbled upon it more than 60 years after its construction.

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But it wasn’t just the size and hidden nature of the chamber that made it a fascinating – and alarming – discovery. In places, those involved in the building work deep underground had left behind messages for future explorers to find. According to Steven Schorr, who runs a forensic consultation company and has investigated the basement of the memorial, there are some historic relics hidden in the dark.

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“Down in the basement of the Lincoln Memorial, they actually have things written on some of the pillars,” Schorr told the news station NBC10 Philadelphia in 2014. “The builders actually drew cartoons and they have them covered in Plexiglas.” To begin with, the National Park Service was keen to welcome the public into the chamber – until a visitor made a grim discovery.

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In 1989 someone on a tour of the Lincoln Memorial’s basement spotted toxic asbestos within the structure. A known carcinogen, this material was commonly used in building work before its dangers were discovered in the 1970s. And according to experts, it’s been known to cause lung damage in those exposed to it.

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When the asbestos was identified, the basement was abruptly closed to visitors – and it’s remained off-limits ever since. But that hasn’t stopped various parties from proposing new uses for the cavernous space. In 1992, for instance, a member of the Capitol Historical Society expressed a desire to transform the chamber into a museum.

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In Fred Schwengel’s plan, he suggested filling the space with objects from Lincoln’s life to create an exhibition dedicated to the 16th president. But the National Park Service opposed this idea, and it never came to fruition. So the basement was doomed to languish in obscurity until 2017, when a new idea was put forward for the space.

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Plans are currently in the works to renovate the entire Lincoln Memorial, including the underground chamber, ahead of its 100-year anniversary during 2022. And as well as carrying out restoration procedures on the outside of the building, the National Park Service hopes to give the basement, now known as the undercroft, a new lease of life.

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As part of the proposed renovations, the custodians of the memorial hope to open the undercroft to tourists for the first time in more than 30 years. By way of a subterranean platform, visitors would be able to observe the foundations of the structure, as well as the historic graffiti lining the walls. The plan is presently being considered by the National Capital Planning Commission.

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Amazingly, Bacon’s memorial isn’t the only monument to Lincoln to contain a secret chamber. At Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, where a likeness of the 16th president is carved into the rockface, a hidden vault was once constructed behind the facade. Originally intended to serve as a museum space, it was finally completed in the 1990s, although it’s still inaccessible to the public today.

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And it isn’t just Lincoln memorials that have been keeping secrets underneath the noses of the American people. At the Statue of Liberty, for example, a hidden room inside the sculpture’s raised torch has been off-limits to the public since 1916. Across town, New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel boasts an entire clandestine subway station lurking beneath its glitzy exterior. Will these, like the basement of Bacon’s monument, eventually be opened up for visitors to explore?

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