Madonna of the Trail isn’t the most well-known statue in the greater Washington, D.C. area. It depicts a grim mother trudging forward, a baby in her arms and an unfortunate-looking child clutching her dress.
The Madonna statue in Bethesda, Maryland is one of 12 identical statues placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in 1928 to 1929 along the National Old Trails Road. The Madonnas mark the path of westbound covered wagon trails and honor the hardships endured by pioneering women.
DAR Chairwoman Arlene Nichols Moss and sculptor August Leimbach came to a final design in just three days. To save time and money, they chose to make the statues out of a concrete/granite aggregate material. The advantage of concrete was that once Leimbach created a mold, they could simply pour in the slurry and mass produce the statues.
The overall effect of the piece is frontier grit. Madonna’s got heavy boots, a worn dress, and looks like she could fight off a bear. The dirty gravelly texture of the piece adds to the vibe, suggesting that this is a woman who sleeps outdoors and hasn’t bathed in a month.
The 12th Madonna was placed in the hills above Washington, D.C. in what was then the sleepy village of Bethesda. DAR history notes that this is the approximate spot “where the pioneers spent the first night out of Georgetown on their way to the west.” Over the last century, Bethesda has transformed into a busy urban center and the Madonna now stands beside a major six-lane thoroughfare.
The other 11 Madonnas are still in existence and are located in Wheeling, West Virginia; Springfield, Ohio; Beallsville, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Indiana; Vandalia, Illinois; Lexington, Michigan; Council Grove, Kansas; Lamar, Colorado; Alburquerque, New Mexico; Springerville, Arizona; and Upland, California. Some have been relocated due to road construction but only slightly.
To someone who doesn’t know the history, the statue’s placement can seem a little baffling. The 18-foot-tall Madonna is dwarfed by a next-door high rise, while simultaneously looming over human-sized sidewalk traffic.
Hopefully some who pass by will stop to read the inscription and reflect on what the DAR described as “the real inner beauty of the soul of these mothers of old, as they passed down the great homing trail of the nation.” These days though, most people who do notice this peculiar sculpture are veering out of its way as they rush to the nearby Metro station.
Know Before You Go
Five minutes from the Bethesda Metro station.