Today, the New York State Quarter Coin remembers the journey and the arrival in the New York harbor of the Egyptian obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle 136 years ago.
An excerpt from the Scarlet Book of Free Masonry by M. W. Redding, published in 1885 describes the journey:
On the enforced abdication of the Khedive, Consul- General Farman at once sought and obtained an audience of his son and successor, Mohammed Tewfik Pasha, who promptly confirmed the action of his father in regard to the obelisk, and on May 18, 1879, a formal and definite confirmation in writing of the original gift to the City of New York, was given by the Egyptian Foreign Office to the American Consul- General, who at once communicated it to the Secretary of State at Washington.
Upon receiving notice of this fact, the editor of The World thought it but just and courteous to offer to Mr. Dixon the opportunity of renewing his agreement, should he desire so to do, for transporting the obelisk to New York.
Mr. Louis Sterne communicated this offer to Mr. Dixon, who declined to accept it, but with much courtesy put all the information he had acquired in removing the first obelisk to London, together with various machines and contrivances employed in that operation by him, at the service of the editor of The World for the benefit of any American engineer who should undertake to bring the second obelisk to this country.
Several propositions were made and considered for doing this; but while the subject was still under deliberation, Lieutenant-Commander H. H. Gorringe, in command of the United States steamer Gettysburg, returned to this country from a long surveying service in the waters of the Levant, during which he had made a special personal study of the position of the standing obelisk at Alexandria and of that port, with a direct reference to the conditions under which its removal must be conducted.
An accomplished archaeologist, as well as a gallant and skilful officer, Lieutenant-Commander Gorringe had taken the liveliest interest in the project.
Immediately upon his return he sought an interview with the Secretary of State. who becoming satisfied after a full conversation with him that he had mastered the question of the removal in all its details, referred him, with the strongest recommendations, to the editor of The World.
After a careful examination of the plans and drawings submitted by him, the work of removing the obelisk was formally committed to Lieutenant-Commander Gorringe, and an agreement made with him on the same basis with that originally accepted by Mr. Dixon.
He set about his enterprise at once with great energy and prudence, and on August 24, 1879, sailed in the Britannic for Liverpool and Alexandria, having previously superintended the construction, at the Roebling Iron Works, in New Jersey, of some new and extremely ingenious machinery, devised by himself, to be used in taking down and shipping the monolith.
At the request of the Secretary of State, the Naval Department granted a special leave of absence to Lieutenant-Commander Gorringe and to Lieutenant Seaton Schroeder, who accompanied him as navigator of the vessel in which the obelisk should be shipped.
During the whole of the autumn of 1879 and the winter of 1879-80, Lieutenant-Commander Gorringe was occupied not only with overcoming the severe material difficulties involved in the task he had undertaken, but with defeating the intrigues and machinations of innumerable parties interested in preventing, if possible, the consummation of an enterprise which had been regarded from the beginning with an unfavorable eye by the great majority of Europeans resident in Egypt.
With the exception, indeed, of the Russian representatives in that country, and of the numerous and intelligent Greek community there, it may be said that the united influence of the European world of Egypt, public and private, was thrown against the young American officer and his work.
His patience, firmness and tact, however, have proved equal to all the demands made upon them, and with the loyal and efficient co-operation of the Khedive and of Consul-General Farman, the work of removing the obelisk from its site and shipping it for its long and perilous voyage was triumphantly carried through.
Thanks to the unfortunate condition of the United States steam marine, it was found by Lieutenant-Commander Gorringe to be impossible to obtain an American vessel for the service excepting at ruinous rates, and the obelisk was brought out, therefore, on a steamer of English build, the Dessoug, which was purchased by Lieutenant-Commander Gorringe in Egypt, and altered and modified there to suit his views.
In this vessel he sailed from Alexandria at 2 p.m., on Saturday, June 12th.
In mid-ocean the crank of the steamer’s engine broke, but as Lieutenant-Commander Gorringe had thoughtfully provided a second one, the damage was repaired within twenty-four hours, and on July 20, 1880, at 2 a.m., the Dessoug entered the harbor of New York.
Before Lieutenant-Commander Gorringe sailed for Europe to bring the obelisk home, he inspected the Central Park, in company with Mr. Frederic E. Church, the most eminent of American artists, and with the editor of The World, and the site on which the obelisk is now to be erected was by them selected.
It had been approved by the munificent citizen who undertook to defray the cost of the removal, and in May, 1880, permission had been granted by the Commissioners of the Park, to Mr. Henry G. Stebbins and his associates, to erect the obelisk on this site.
Lieutenant-Commander Gorringe, finding it impossible to obtain a satisfactory dock for unloading the obelisk on Manhattan Island, took the Dessoug to Staten Island immediately after his arrival, and there proceeded with the delicate work of unshipping the great monolith, and transshipping it up in caissons arranged for that purpose, in accordance with a plan of his own devising.
This operation was finally completed on September 6th, and on September 16th the monolith was safely transferred from the caissons to Manhattan Island, at the foot of Ninety- sixth Street.
Thence it was moved with great care and skill to its destined site in the Park.
The New York State Quarter Coin shows with an image of the obelisk at Alexandria during preparations for the moving the large stone.