Stop 5: GeoStory of the Lincoln Memorial

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, from 1861 until his death by assassination on April 15, 1865. During his presidency, two events dramatically changed United States history. One was the Civil War between the southern (Confederate) and northern (Union) states. The other was the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States through the Emancipation Proclamation and the Constitution’s 13th Amendment. Union and freedom were two ideas Lincoln embraced during his presidency. These ideas are also embodied by the Lincoln Memorial in its building materials, architecture, art, and historical events.

How does geology help support history at the Lincoln Memorial? The Lincoln Memorial is actually built on the reclaimed land that used to be at the bottom of the Potomac River. The rocks used in the construction of the memorial to the man who preserved the Union and fought for freedom were quarried from states in the northern, southern, eastern, and western parts of the country. These rocks also provide the platform for countless rallies, demonstrations, and national celebrations. One of the more famous events held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech given in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.


Construction began February 12, 1914 and the memorial was dedicated on May 30, 1922. The Reflecting Pool was also dedicated in 1922 to be the visual link between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

While Abraham Lincoln was President (1861-1865), the location where his memorial sits today would have been in the mud flats of the Potomac River. His memorial was built on land at the far west end of the late 1800s reclamation project to create the East to West axis of the Mall with the U.S. Capitol.


Why do cave-like formations appear here? The memorial would have been too heavy to build directly on the soft, reclaimed land, so supports were driven down almost 100 feet to bedrock. This cavernous foundation provides an ideal location for cave-like formations to actively grow.

Water on the surface slowly makes its way down through cement stairs into the empty space below. Cement is “glued” together by calcium carbonate. As the water passed through the cement, it dissolves some calcium carbonate and carries it downward. When the water reaches the open space, it leaves behind the calcium carbonate, creating stalactites and stalagmites. This is the same way cave stalactites and stalagmites form, only instead of passing through cement stairs, natural cave features usually form when ground water passes through limestone. Since the cave formations at the Lincoln Memorial aren’t in an actual cave, maybe we should call them “under-the-stair-ites.”


The Lincoln Memorial is a good location to test your skill as a geologist. You can find all three types of rock. Do you remember the difference between igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks? If you need a rock type review you can Build a GeoFlag.

Geology Outside the Memorial

If you are ready to rock hunt at the Lincoln Memorial, roll your mouse over the different rocks in the picture and click on them to find out more information. Let’s start on the outside and see what we can find.

Granite from Massachusetts makes up the base of the memorial and the lower steps. Marble from Colorado was used for the exterior walls and columns. Large, single blocks of pink Tennessee marble were carved into tripods on the staircase, one on each side.

Geology Inside the Memorial

Now that you’ve explored the outside, roll your mouse over the picture to identify the four different kinds of rock used on the inside. Click on them to learn more. Pink Tennessee marble was used for the chamber floor and statue base. Thin slices of Alabama marble make the skylights in the ceiling. The statue of Lincoln is carved out of white Georgia marble, surrounded by interior walls and columns of Indiana limestone.

Once you’ve identified the rocks used in the Lincoln Memorial it is time to test your skill as a Geo*Storian (someone who looks at geology and history at the same time). How do stones from quarries around the country contribute to the meaning of the memorial built to honor Abraham Lincoln?



Many details in the art and architecture come together to give the Lincoln Memorial its meaning.

Inside, the 19 x 19 foot statue of Abraham Lincoln is the centerpiece of the memorial. It is actually made of 28 separate blocks of marble. Daniel Chester French designed a small model of the statue which the Piccirilli Brothers of New York enlarged and carved into big marble blocks that fit together like a puzzle. They did such a good job putting the statue together that it is hard to see the seams between the blocks.

Daniel Chester French designed the statue to symbolize both Abraham Lincoln’s strength, and his compassion. Look at the difference in body language between the left and right sides of the statue. Can you find symbols of strength and compassion by looking at the statue? On Lincoln’s left, his face is tense, his eyebrow is arched, his hand is closed in a fist, and his leg is firmly planted to show his strength to keep the Union of the States intact. On his right side, Lincoln’s face is relaxed, his hand is open, and his leg is moving forward to show compassion and his action to abolish slavery. What other kinds of symbolism can you find at the Lincoln Memorial? Explore the paintings and inscriptions.

Art and Painting

Jules Guerin painted symbols of freedom and unity in the murals titled Emancipation and Reunion. The murals were painted on canvas and coated with waxes and kerosene to make them weather-proof before being hung on the north and south interior walls. Emancipation, on the south wall, shows the Angel of Truth with her arms stretched over her head. Within her wings are slaves breaking free. Below, the words of the Gettysburg Address are engraved in the limestone wall. This famous speech, given by Lincoln at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is engraved in the limestone, just as it is engraved in the memory of all who read it. Reunion, on the north wall, shows the Angel of Truth holding the hands of the north and South together. Within her wings are figures representing the Arts and Sciences. Below this mural are the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.


Visit the Lincoln Memorial online for more information.


Continue Your Tour of the National Mall

Stop 1: The Geology of the Washington D.C. Area

Stop 2: The History of Washington D.C.

Stop 3: Finding D.C.’s Foundation

Stop 4: A Watery Past

Stop 5: GeoStory of the Lincoln Memorial

Stop 6: Remembering War

Stop 7: Stories in Stone at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Stop 8: Thomas Jefferson Memorial - A Place of Controversy

Stop 9: Washington Monument - The Nation’s Most Unique Rock Collection

Stop 10: Who Cares for the National Mall







Return to Views