by David Healey
A couple hundred feet down the road from the house where we stay on a Maine island is a rectangular granite block about 75 feet long, half covered in weeds, and on which are stacked a few lobster traps and boat parts. As it turns out, this is a rather ignominious end for a piece of stone intended to be used as a monument for General John E. Wool.
For many years we used to walk past this granite monolith and wonder. When our kids were young, they scrambled up and walked up and down the stone, a sort of granite jungle gym. A sign nearby marks a gravel road known as General Wool Street, and therein lies a story.
Unless you are familiar with the Mexican-American War and the War of 1812, you may not be really familiar with General Wool. A native of New York state, Wool served in the War of 1812 and helped lead a successful U.S. Army expedition into Mexico, where he fought under the command of Zachary Taylor.
Both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee served as junior officers in in the Mexican War. In his fascinating memoirs, Grant describes his service in Mexico in some detail. He doesn’t mention Wool, but does heap praise on General Taylor.
Wool was a career soldier through and through, highly regarded as a professional and as an individual. Taylor’s victories in Mexico carried him to the White House, and Wool returned home to accolades and overall command of the U.S. Army on the East Coast.
Wool continued to serve his nation and by the time the Civil War arrived, was still on active duty. At age 77 in 1861, however, Wool passed the reins to officers who were 30 or even 40 years younger. He officially retired in 1863. Like his War of 1812 contemporary, General Winfield Scott, his talent and abilities belonged to an earlier era.
When Wool passed away in 1869, he was interred at Oakwood Cemetery. As a war hero and famous native son, the people of New York raised funds to give him a proper monument.
And so, many miles away on the island of Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay, work began to quarry and shape the monument to Wool. In the age before concrete, granite was the building material of choice, and Vinalhaven was a key quarrying center that employed hundreds, if not thousands, in that trade. Granite was also a decorative material, and the island employed carvers as well. After the monolith was roughed out, the carvers were to go to work to shape the granite into something that somewhat resembled the shape of the Washington monument.
Some flaw, however, rendered the first granite “blank” unusable and it was discarded, literally by the side of the road. There it has sat for more than 140 years to eventually serve as a shelf for lobster traps and spare parts.
A twin chunk of granite was quarried, and painstakingly shaped, then shipped—literally by ship—down the Atlantic coast and up the Hudson River. According to the cemetery history, a special set of train tracks was build to move the monument (properly termed an obelisk) from the wharf to the cemetery. Scaffolding then surrounded the marker while finishing touches were made.
The result was a sky-piercing monument to General Wool. Over those early years, thousands came to marvel and pay their respects to Wool. To this day, cemetery officials say that Wool’s monument draws visitors.
While the resulting monument is an impressive and fitting marker to a great man, the ruined stone on a Maine island remains intriguing, a bit like the ruins one might picture from the “colossal wreck” in Shelley’s great poem, “Ozymandius” when he writes, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”