31 Days of History: 14 July

I often hear people say, "I'm going to visit the Smithsonian". That's somewhat of an understatement, since the Smithsonian Institution isn't a single building--it's a very large organization composed of 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo.

In 1826, a British scientist named James Smithson drew up his last will and testament, naming his nephew as beneficiary. Smithson stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs (as he would in 1835), the estate should go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." That's an interesting bequest, especially when you consider the fact that Smithson had never traveled to the United States and seems to have had no correspondence with anyone here. Since he never provided any explanation, the reasons will never be known.

James Smithson

After Smithson died in 1829, President Andrew Jackson announced the bequest to Congress. On 1 July 1836, Congress accepted the gift (it amounted to more than $500,000) and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust.

After eight years of sometimes heated debate, the Smithsonian Institution was established on 10 August 1846. In 2008, the Institution welcomed over 30,000,000 (that's million) visitors.

A statue of Smithson in front of The Castle

(An interesting side note: Upon his death in 1829, Smithson's body was buried in Genoa. In 1904, Alexander Graham Bell, then Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, brought Smithson's remains from Genoa to Washington, D.C., where they were entombed at the Smithsonian Institution Building, aka "The Castle".)

Smithson's crypt inside The Castle

Many people don't realize that the National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian. The Zoo was founded in 1889 and became a part of the Institution in 1890. It has 163 acres and is located about 20 minutes away from the National Mall on Connecticut Avenue (NW).

Here's a couple of historical photos of the zoo.

Buffaloes ranging at the National Zoological in 1891, soon after the completion of the first building, a house for bison and elk.

Baby elephant Jayathu receives a pat from President Reagan upon her arrival in this country from Sri Lanka; 1983

The original "Smokey Bear" frolicking in a pool at the National Zoo. Smokey was brought from New Mexico in June of 1950 after being burned as a cub from a forest fire that swept through a portion of Lincoln National Forest.

Alligators in their enclosure in the original Animal House,1900. The Animal House was the first permanent building at the National Zoological Park. The alligators are shown in the "temporary" wooden wing of the structure. They were given more spacious accommodations when the Reptile House was completed in 1931.

This last photo is significant, since on this day in 1916 (93 years ago today) a watchman at the National Zoo reports sighting an alligator in Rock Creek Park. "The Head Keeper, with several assistants, turned out promptly and after a rather lively chase through the water an alligator about 3 feet long was captured and transferred to the tank where others of his kind are kept." It was never confirmed if the alligator had originally escaped from the Zoo, but since alligators do not normally live in Rock Creek Park of the surrounding area, it's a pretty safe assumption.

Just to prove that history often repeats itself: on 12 Aug 2008, there were multiple reports of an alligator spotted in Rock Creek Park. Zoo alligators were inventoried (none were missing) and dozens of zoo staff and workers turned out to look, but the "phantom gator" was never found. The next time you pass through Rock Creek Park, be on the lookout. . .

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