An American icon, Lady Liberty has long been depicted on the country’s stamps and coins. She appeared on commemorative coins marking her centennial in 1986.
On this day in history, October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World was unveiled to the public by President Grover Cleveland in New York Harbor.
The copper statue was a gift from the French people to the United States of America in recognition of the two nations’ commitment to democracy, their alliance during the Revolutionary War, as well as a commemoration of a century of American independence.
Built in France and finished in July 1884, it arrived aboard the French ship Isere in New York on June 17, 1886, in 350 separate parts in 214 packing cases. Its copper sheets were reassembled, and the statue of a crowned, robed woman holding a torch with her raised right arm stood 151 feet tall.
Electricians wired the torch, which was lit for the first time on the evening of its official dedication. Cleveland accepted the colossal statue on behalf of the American people, and said “we will not forget that Liberty here made her home; nor shall her chosen altar be neglected.”
“A stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression,” the former New York governor added, “until Liberty enlightens the world.”
Bartholdi Unveils His Statue
Cleveland presided over the festivities, which included the city‘s first ticker tape parade and a nautical review. Count Ferdinand de Lesseps delivered a speech, followed by a gun salute, music and a benediction. A large crowd welcomed Lady Liberty.
“Extra heavily loaded trains, much behind schedule time, were the rule on every railroad entering the city,” wrote The New York Times. “Every hotel was crowded to its utmost capacity last night, and there was hardly one of the better known hotels which did not have to turn away hundreds of would be guests.”
A red barge decorated with the phrase “Eat, Drink and be Merry” was docked at Bedloe’s Island. It transported tens of thousands of visitors through the winds and mist that day to get a glimpse of the exciting events.
French artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the huge sculpture, was perched in the torch. He pulled a rope that moved the French flag away, revealing the unforgettable face of the statue to the cheering crowd.
Pulitzer and the Pedestal
Bartholdi’s goddess also holds a tablet representing the American Declaration of Independence. The steel supports were engineered by Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, who built the Eiffel Tower.
In 1865, French historian Edouard de Laboulaye proposed the idea of a statue to commemorate the two nations’ friendship, and their opposition to monarchy and slavery. He founded the liberal Franco-American Union to raise the necessary funds.
Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, printed editorials attacking the rich for not donating and others for relying on them to contribute. This proved successful; financing for the 154-foot, concrete and granite pedestal was secured in August 1885 from 120,000 contributors, most of whom gave less than a dollar.
“The New Colossus”
In 1903, the pedestal was inscribed with a poem by Emma Lazarus, an American writer, entitled “The New Colossus,” which reads in part:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
This sonnet beckoned the great wave of immigrants who were to file through nearby Ellis Island, which opened as the United States’ main gateway for newcomers from all over the world in 1892.
One immigrant who arrived from Greece said: “I saw the Statue of Liberty. And I said to myself, ‘Lady, you’re such a beautiful! You opened your arms and you get all the foreigners here. Give me a chance to prove that I am worth it, to do something, to be someone in America.’ And always that statue was on my mind.”
Lady Liberty was intended to be a functional lighthouse; she was operated by the United States Lighthouse Board from 1886 to 1901. The U.S. War Department took over operation and maintenance in 1901.
Lady Liberty’s 100th Birthday
The statue and the island on which it stands, now known as Liberty Island, were made a national monument by President Calvin Coolidge on October 15, 1924. The National Park Service assumed management of the monument in 1933 and was given oversight of the entire island four years later.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan set up a commission to restore the deteriorating sculpture, and appointed Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca to help finance the restoration effort in 1984. More than $350 million in donations were raised.
A French-American preservation group cleaned the sculpture, and replaced the glass and metal torch with gold leaf. The original torch is displayed in the statue’s lobby. An elevator runs to the top of the pedestal, and steps within the statue lead to the crown.
On July 4, 1986, the Statue of Liberty celebrated its 100th birthday with a spectacular fireworks display, the biggest in history. “Tonight, we pledge ourselves to the cause of human freedom that gives light and hope to the world,” Reagan said, as he stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier and illuminated Lady Liberty with a laser.
Major Tourist Attraction
The Statue of Liberty is a major international tourist spot, attracting as many as five million people a year from all over the world. It was closed to visitors after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.
The island reopened to the public after 100 days, but the pedestal remained closed until 2004 and the statue until 2009, with limits on the number of visitors allowed to ascend to the crown.
The statue is scheduled to close again for up to a year in late 2011 so a secondary staircase can be installed. Public access to the balcony surrounding the torch has been barred for safety reasons since 1916.
Tourists today can still visit Liberty Island, and the pedestal observation deck and museum. When she made her debut, Lady Liberty, representing Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, was at 305 feet the tallest metal statue in the world.