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The Greenock Freemason who built the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.

Brother Gilbert Cameron

RWM Greenock St. John’s No. 175

Installed on Thursday 30th November 1865

Died in office on 5th November 1866 – Funeral Thursday 8th November 1866

The original building of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C. known as The Castle, was built by Greenock man Gilbert Cameron who was the project main contractor. The work began in 1847 and finished in 1855.

Gilbert Cameron was born in Greenock in about 1809, the son of Dugald Cameron, a shoemaker and his wife Jane Sayers who were married in Greenock on 27 January 1806. After serving his apprenticeship as a mason and working as a journeyman for some years in Greenock. He then moved to America and worked as a stonemason and builder in New York before moving to Washington D.C. where he set up his own building contractors business.

He worked as the main contractor at the Smithsonian with architect James Renwick, Jr. (1818-1895) of New York. The Smithsonian Institute was built as a result of a bequest by the British Scientist James Smithson (1765-1829) who, strangely, had never actually visited the United States.

Gilbert Cameron was also the main building contractor for the Soldiers’ Home in Washington. The architect on this building was Lieutenant Barton Stone Alexander (1819-1878). The two buildings are quite similar architecturally.

On 1st May 1847 in a ceremony attended by six to seven thousand people, the cornerstone of the Smithsonian Institution Building was laid with full Masonic Honours. The occasion was regarded in Washington as a public holiday. Festivities included a mile-long procession from City Hall at Judiciary Square to the White House and then Pennsylvania Avenue to the south side of the site.

The procession from the White House to the building site was led by President James K. Polk and his cabinet, Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry and the Smithsonian Chancellor and Vice President George Mifflin Dallas.

William Beverley Randolph had been appointed Grand Marshall of the event by the Board of Regents. Numerous Masonic delegations were sent from Baltimore and Philadelphia. The Marine Band, the National Brass Band, and Garcia’s Band from Alexandria accompanied the procession.

The gavel used and the apron worn by The Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia M. W. Bro. B. B. French were the same as those used by Bro. George Washington during the laying of the cornerstone at the Capitol on 18 September 1793.

The inscription on the cornerstone reads “On the 1st day of May 1847, was laid, in the city of Washington, this foundation-stone of a building to be appropriated for the Smithsonian Institution; founded by a bequest of James Smithson, of Great Britain.”

Gilbert Cameron returned to Greenock at the start of the American Civil War in 1861 and set up in business as a builder and contractor. He lived for a while in Havelock Buildings, 17 West Blackhall Street (above what is now Slater Hogg & Howison) and eventually built Washington Cottage, Glen Road, Glenside, Greenock

He became involved in community affairs and was Initiated, Passed and Raised in Lodge Greenock St. John’s No. 175.

On Thursday 30th November 1865 he was installed as RWM but sadly did not manage to complete his year as he passed away very suddenly on 5th November 1866.

His obituary in the Glasgow Herald stated that -

"Mr Cameron was in town on Monday in the enjoyment of his ordinary good health. He dined in one of the hotels, and returned home during the evening. About nine o'clock he was suddenly seized with cramp and vomiting, which continued till an early hour yesterday morning, when death took place."

He had unfortunately contracted Asiatic Cholera.

His wife, Mary Mitchell died on 30th January 1884 in Washington, D.C. They had no children.

The passing of RWM. Bro. Gilbert Cameron is recorded in the Lodge minutes thus:

Funeral of Brother Gilbert Cameron late R. W. Master

On Thursday 8th November 1866 the Brethren and Office Bearers assembled at the Glen Road about half past one o’clock when they were kindly invited by Bro. Courtney Ware of Glen House into his house and there in the most generous manner received a refreshment of wine and cake.

“The brethren numbering over a hundred were then formed into a procession of two deep and marched up to Washington Cottage where they took up their position behind the carriages comprising the funeral cortege and proceeded along with the other mourners also in procession of two deep down Glen Road and along Union Street, George Square, Kilblain and Inverkip Streets to the Inverkip Street Burying Ground where the deceased was interred after which the brethren dispersed.”

Gilbert Cameron’s memory lives on in Greenock by way of a large piece of red sandstone from the Seneca quarry on the Potomac River (where the stone for the Smithsonian was quarried), which Gilbert Cameron had sent over to be part of the memorial to Greenock's most famous son, Engineer Brother James Watt (1736 – 1819). This memorial cairn can be seen in Greenock Cemetery.

The Watt Cairn

Projected and commenced by the Watt Club 1854.

Arranged and completed on the 200th anniversary of Watt's birth 1936.

These stones, gifted from all parts of the world, speak of the universal homage

accorded the great engineer, inventor and scientist.

The monument also marks the burying place of James Watt's ancestors

removed from the Old West Kirk, 26th April 1927.

The Stones and their Donors

Malta, St Paul's Bay, Major General Sir William Reid, governor of Malta

Sebastopol Granite, Henry Innes, Secretary to the Port Admiral

Marble from Tunis, Sir Edward Baines HM Consul General

Marble from Carthage, Admiral Sir Houston Stewart

Slab from Palestine, John Currie Stone from Peru, Alex Prentice, Lima

Stone from Ghaut of India, Bombay Mechanics Institution

Red Sandstone from Seneca Quarry, Potomac River, Gilbert Cameron

Granite Slab, Heriot Currie

Pentagonal Column from the Giant's Causeway

Stone, Mechanics Institute, St Helens

Stone from Canada, Rollo Campbell, Montreal

Foundation stones, Dougald Dove, Nitshill and Arden Quarries and

Sir Michael R Shaw Stewart Bt, A member of the Watt Club.

Alexander Galbraith. P.M., PPGM., PSGM.


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