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San Jacinto Monument


San Jacinto Monument

by Ajay Shastri PhD, PE | Editorial Committee member (Geosyntec Consultants, Inc.)

Photo taken by David Collins, ASCE Houston Branch, on September 12, 2020 for an ASCE Landmark Site Visit Report.

The battle of San Jacinto, fought in the year 1836, proved to be a decisive battle in the Texas revolution, leading to the independence of Texas. The Texas legislature authorized the construction of the San Jacinto monument to stand as a memorial to the lives lost during the revolution. The monument’s architect Alfred Finn, structural engineer Robert Cummins, and geotechnical engineer Raymond Dawson provided the final design of an octagonal masonry obelisk topped with the Lone Star[1]. Its builder was the W. S. Bellows Construction Co. of Dallas and Houston. Construction began on April 21, 1936, the centennial anniversary date of the Battle of San Jacinto, and was completed by April 21, 1939, at a total cost of 1.5 million dollars[2]. The monument has been run by the San Jacinto Museum of History Association.  In 1966, the monument was placed under the control of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on December 19, 1960.

The San Jacinto Monument was designated an ASCE National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark (NHCEL) in 1992 at the ASCE Texas Section annual meeting. It is mounted on a movable platform near the gift shop because the San Jacinto Monument leaders did not allow the plaque on a wall!

The San Jacinto Monument is located at the Houston Ship Channel near the city of Houston, within the 1200-acre  San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site.  It stands at a height of 567 ft measured from its footing to the top of the beacon[3], entering the Guinness Book of World Records in 1984 as the tallest free-standing column in the world. As a comparison, the Washington monument stands at 554 ft tall.  The column is an octagonal shaft topped with a 34 foot, 220-ton Lone Star. The San Jacinto Museum of history is housed at the base of the monument. The total weight of this structure measured at a little over 35,000 tons, making it almost thrice as heavy as the Eiffel tower in Paris, which weighed in at about 10,500 tons. The walls of the base were constructed with Texas Cordova shell stone known geologically as the “Whitestone Lentil” and was formed approximately 105 million years ago.

Construction of the San Jacinto Memorial Monument as seen in the display in the Museum of History.
Retrieved from www.sanjacinto-musem.org.

The San Jacinto monument stands apart for being one of the few structures whose settlement has been monitored from the time of its construction. It laid the groundwork for many future high-rise structures, particularly those built on expansive soils and subject to heavy wind loads caused by severe tropical storms. Dawson, the geotechnical engineer, influenced by Karl Terzaghi’s work on soil mechanics, conducted numerous consolidation tests before construction. He was instrumental in installing as many as 50 settlement points monitored by his students and him 26 times from the time of construction to 1966[1]. The precise monitoring of foundation settlement provided data for testing Dr. Karl Terzaghi’s consolidation theory, a fundamental component of soil mechanics. Since the time of construction, it was noticed that the amount of differential settlement was relativity small. Since 1984 McClelland Engineers, which subsequently became Fugro Consultants continue to monitor the settlement of the structure. However, the monument was impacted by the large subsidence, which is significant due to the extraction of oil and groundwater in the Houston region[4]. Based on the readings from Dawson, the recorded subsidence was as high as 10-ft around the monument. The detailed work published by Dr. Jean Louis Briaud in 2008[1] provided a fascinating insight into several of the geotechnical aspects of the structure. The continuous monitoring of the data for over 80-years and periodic investigations has allowed engineers to obtain a better understanding of the principles and properties of the soil which govern the behavior of large structures.

Aerial view of the monument and the reflecting pool.
Retrieved from tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/san-jacinto-battleground.

This historical monument has been an inspiration for generations of Texans. The valuable information that has been obtained about this exceptional monument over the year has proved to be a fascinating subject of study for civil engineers the world over.

[1] Briaud, Jean-Louis, Jennifer Nicks, Keunyoung Rhee, and Gregory Stieben. “San Jacinto monument case history.” Journal of geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering 133, no. 11 (2007): 1337-1351.

[2] Wolff, Henry Jr. (April 23, 2004). “San Jacinto Monument was years in the making.” Victoria Advocate. p. 3A.

[3] Paul Gervais Bell Jr., “Monumental Myths” Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, Southwestern Historical Quarterly 103 (1999–2000) page before 1–14, p. 14.

[4] Briaud, J. L., Y. Koohi, J. Nicks, and I. Jung. “San Jacinto monument: new soil data and analysis including subsidence.” Journal of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering 141, no. 6 (2015): 04015023.