Yet another popular legend of the Lincoln Memorial lies in the number of steps to the top of the Memorial. As before, let’s start with the Park Service’s website:
No, this is another popular myth. The Lincoln Memorial steps actually extend to the Reflecting Pool, so at present count that would be 98 steps. If one counts the steps from the road to the Memorial chamber, one would find 57. There is no significance to either number.
Unfortunately, the Park Service doesn’t tell you what the popular myth is. Put simply, the legend states the number of steps are either Lincoln’s age (road to Memorial chamber) or “fourscore and seven” (all the way to the Reflecting Pool).
If you don’t check out their site, and I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t (it’s quite horrible), the Park Service offers a cell phone tour of the Memorial. Call (202) 747-3420 and listen to one of 13 recorded messages. Number 11 is entitled “Myths of the Lincoln Memorial” and addresses this one (as well as Lee’s face and Lincoln’s hands):
When you visit the memorial, you climb several steps to reach the Chamber. Many visitors assume the 58 steps they climb from the sidewalk below equal his age at his death. However Lincoln was only 56 years old when he was killed in April 1865.
So, it looks like the Park Service is dead on. As we all know, Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 and died on the morning of April 15, 1865. He was clearly 56 years old at his death. I know, I know, the legend has morphed into 56 steps for his age and one for each term of his Presidency, but if we start playing with the numbers we’re just entering the realm of fantasy.
It’s entirely possible this legend has it’s root in confused memories of the Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace National Memorial, which does have 56 steps leading up to the Beuax-Arts monstrosity housing a cabin not unlike the one Lincoln was born in, if totally unlikely to be the actual one. And it’s possible that having 56 steps might have been an early plan of the architect Henry Bacon. After all, the Birthplace Memorial was designed by John Russel Pope, a competitor of Bacon’s for the big prize and completed only three years before construction started on the DC Memorial. And hey, 58 is pretty close. But this is purely supposition.
Now, did you note the discrepancy between the website and the Park Service recording? That’s right, one said 57 and one said 58. Well, counting is something I’ve occasionally had some trouble with, so I’ll put my stones down and leave my glass house to double check. Feel free to verify my work, but I get 58 too.
Lincoln Memorial Chamber to “I Have a Dream” Landing 18
“I Have a Dream Landing” to base 23
1st set of steps 3
2nd set of steps 3
3rd set of steps 3
Steps to the road 8
And what about the remainder of the steps? Well, I’ve got two flights of ten and one of nine, making a grand total of 87, or four score and seven steps.