Written by Jason Epperson

The Statue of Liberty stands out in New York Harbor, bearing her torch, welcoming tourists and immigrants with the American spirit of Liberty. Her story is complicated, and many apocryphal tales abound of her sitting disassembled for years while Americans tried to figure out how to assemble it. The truth is much more interesting.

Liberty Island–the home of the green lady overlooking New York Harbor–hosted its first inhabitants in the year AD 994. One of the three so-called “Oyster Islands,” Indigenous Americans found a major source of food from the numerous shell beds in this place.

Island History

Over 600 years later, Henry Hudson landed in New York Harbor and the now-named Hudson River estuary. Europeans colonized the area, including the Oyster Islands. Occupation, war, and disease during forced the Native Americans to move both north and west. The Island was claimed by a man named Isaac Bedloe, who called it Love Island until his death when it was renamed Bedloe’s Island and then sold by his widow to New York Merchants to avoid bankruptcy in 1732.

Now a strategic trading post, ships coming in and out of New York City needed to be inspected for contamination and disease. The city took possession of Bedloe’s Island, using it as a quarantine station. In the following years, leading up to the American revolution, it was host to the Summer residence of an Earl, a hospital, and again a quarantine station after an outbreak of smallpox.

When the revolutionary war broke out, the British used the island as an asylum for American colonists loyal to the crown, until 1776, when insurgents laid siege to Beldoe’s Island and burned its buildings to the ground.

In the years following the war, tensions rose between the United States, England, and France, and the government began to construct fortifications on Bedloe’s Island. Fort Wood, in the shape of an 11-point star, aided in the protection of the New York Harbor, garrisoned with artillery and infantry until the outbreak of the Civil War when it became a recruiting station and ordinance depot for the North.

In 1865, just after the end of the Civil War, a young French sculptor named Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi attended a banquet near Versailles, where he met Edouard de Laboulaye, a historian and authority on the U.S. Constitution. De Laboulaye mused that America’s centennial was approaching in 1876 and that France ought to present the country with a commemoration of the occasion. Bartholdi, fascinated with the idea of creating colossal works, proposed a giant statue of some kind, which he would dream about for the next six years. The two agreed to work together on the project, and that Bartholdi would sculpt it.

Bartholdi came to the United States to promote the idea, gain interest, and scout locations. He focused on Bedloe’s Island, noting the ships arriving in New York had to sail past it. He was happy to discover that it was owned by the United States government, thus “land common to all the states.” Bartholdi visited prominent New Yorkers, and President Ulysses S. Grant, who assured him that it would not be difficult to obtain the site for the statue. He then crossed the country twice by rail, meeting Americans who he thought would be sympathetic to the project.

Bartholdi returned to France and formed with De Laboulaye the Franco-American Union to oversee fundraising for the Statue. In the spirit of cooperation, it was meant to be a joint effort. The French would fund the statue if the people of the United States would agree to fund the pedestal. Now it just needed to be designed.

Bartholdi and De Laboulaye considered how best to express the idea of American liberty. A female representation adorned most American coins of the time, and she appeared in popular and civic art, including Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom atop the dome of the United States Capitol Building. A figure of Liberty was also depicted in French political art, yet she was a revolutionary often wearing armor, and Bartholdi wanted to depict peace, so he imagined a figure dressed in flowing robes and bearing a torch representing progress, and a crown evoking the sun to light the world.

Bartholdi’s early models were all fairly similar. According to popular accounts, the face was modeled after that of his mother, Charlotte. He designed the figure with a strong, uncomplicated silhouette, which would be set off by its dramatic harbor placement and allow passengers on vessels to experience a changing perspective on the statue as they proceeded toward Manhattan. He gave it bold classical contours and applied simplified modeling, reflecting the huge scale of the project and its solemn purpose.

He wrote: “The surfaces should be broad and simple, defined by a bold and clear design, accentuated in the important places. The enlargement of the details or their multiplicity is to be feared. By exaggerating the forms, in order to render them more clearly visible, or by enriching them with details, we would destroy the proportion of the work. Finally, the model, like the design, should have a summarized character, such as one would give to a rapid sketch. Only it is necessary that this character should be the product of volition and study, and that the artist, concentrating his knowledge, should find the form and the line in its greatest simplicity.”

The end of slavery and the achievements of Lincoln were a major force behind the statue. Bartholdi considered having Liberty hold a broken chain, but decided this would be too divisive in the days after the Civil War. Instead, the statue would stand above a broken chain and shackle. In the left hand, Bartholdi would place a tablet to evoke the concept of law, inscribing the date of the Declaration of Independence upon it.

Building the Lady

Bartholdi’s friend and mentor, architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, became the chief engineer of the project. He designed a brick pier within the statue, to which the skin would be anchored. He consulted with a foundry to chose the metal which would be used for the skin–copper sheets–and the method used to shape it–heat and wooden hammers.

Although plans for the statue had not been finalized, Bartholdi moved forward with the construction of the right arm, bearing the torch, and the head, and then took it to the United States as a member of a French delegation to the Centennial Exhibition. It proved popular, and visitors would climb up to the balcony of the torch to view the fairgrounds. After the exhibition closed, the arm was transported to New York, where it remained on display in Madison Square Park for several years before it was returned to France to join the rest of the statue.

Meanwhile, committees to raise money to pay for the foundation and pedestal were formed in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The New York group eventually took on most of the responsibility. One of its members was 19-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, the future governor of New York and president of the United States. On March 3, 1877, on his final full day in office, President Grant signed a joint resolution that authorized the President to accept the statue when it was presented by France and to select a site for it. President Rutherford B. Hayes, who took office the following day, selected the Bedloe’s Island site that Bartholdi had proposed.

In 1879 Eugène Viollet-le-Duc died. and Bartholdi turned to Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, to complete the project and overcome some obstacles surrounding the Statue’s structure and assembly, including its height, weight, unusual shape, and the high winds in New York harbor. Eiffel devised an ingenious support system: a 98-foot inner iron framework that would support the Statue’s copper plates. The first plates were completed and assembly began in Paris. The French people fell in love with her, referring to her as the “Lady of the Park.

The American Committee commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design the pedestal; within months he submits a detailed plan. He proposed a foundation 114 feet, containing elements of classical and Aztec architecture. It’s essentially a truncated pyramid, with an observation platform near the top, above which the statue itself rises. Construction on the 15-foot-deep foundation began in 1883, and the pedestal’s cornerstone was laid in 1884. In Hunt’s original conception, the stand was to have been made of solid granite. Financial concerns forced him to revise his plans; the final design called for poured concrete walls, up to 20 feet thick, faced with granite blocks. The height was also reduced to 89 feet. The concrete mass was the largest poured at that time.

On July 4th, 1884, hundreds of people gathered at the feet of the completed Statue in Paris to watch as she was formally presented to Levi P. Morton, the U.S. minister to France. The Statue was scheduled to arrive in the United States in 1885, but funds for the pedestal project ran out and work on the pedestal stoped. New York World publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, came to the rescue with a fundraising campaign to complete the project.

The Statue was disassembled in Paris and shipped to the United States aboard a French navy ship, arriving in New York Harbor on June 17th to tremendous fanfare and a naval parade, but had to be placed in storage for a year while the pedestal was completed.

Once the pedestal was complete, the dangerous and challenging task of reassembling the Statue on Bedloe’s Island began, and the workers, most of whom were immigrants, assembled it with precision and speed.

Finishing Touches

In mid-October, the final fingers clasping the handle of the torch were installed, and a heavy canvas was dropped over the Statue’s face in preparation for the inaugural celebration. On October 28th 1886, New York City held a Ticker-Tape Parade in honor of the dedication of the statue of ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’ which over one million people attended. A water parade of approximately 300 vessels passed in front of the Statue even though visibility was less than a quarter of a mile due to fog and rain throughout the day. The Statue of Liberty was formally unveiled at the dedication ceremony attended by over 2000 men. The New York State Woman Suffrage Association, unable to obtain tickets as they were unaccompanied women, chartered a boat to view the ceremonies from the water.

During the ceremony, Bartholdi released the French flag draped across the Statue’s face prematurely, and guns sounded, and people began to whistle and applaud. President Grover Cleveland formally accepted the Statue of Liberty on behalf of the United States of America as a gift of friendship from France.

Since the weather was foul, the fireworks display and illumination of the torch were put off until November 1st, when Lady Liberty celebrated her birth for a second time.

In the coming years, many changes took place to the Statue. A spiral staircase was constructed, and later an elevator, allowing visitors to climb to the crown and view out. The entire statue was illuminated in 1916. In 1924, it became a National Monument, designated by President Calvin Coolidge. It came under the protection of the National Park Service (along with other National Monuments) by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Roosevelt would preside over the Statues 50th Anniversary 3 years later.

The Statue’s torch was extinguished under the blackout regulations of World War II. The American Museum of Immigration began construction inside the pedestal in 1962, on the now named Liberty Island. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1960 at the statue, abolishing the national origins quota system and stating that all who wish to immigrate to America shall be “admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationships to those already there.”

Johnson later signed a Presidential Proclamation, adding neighboring Ellis Island to the National Park Service, under the administration of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

Protestors from Vietnam Veterans Against the War occupied the Statue of Liberty for three days in1971. In 1977, Puerto Rican nationalists draped the Puerto Rican flag across the Statue’s forehead. In 1980, a bomb detonated in the base of the Statue The FBI suspected Croatian Nationalists advocating Croatian independence from Yugoslavia. Although no one is injured, the National Park Service increased security measures. In 1982, demonstrators opposing the U.S. military intervention in Grenada chained themselves to the support structure of the Statue’s crown.

From 1982 to 1986 a restoration project took place, including a new Statue of Liberty Exhibit in the pedestal. On October 28th, 1986, The centennial of the Statue of Liberty was officially celebrated as the statue re-opened with officials from France and the United States in attendance.

Words from Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” were inscribed on a plaque and mounted to the base in 1903. She wrote the poem as a gift to one of the American fundraisers for the pedestal:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”

Liberty Island

Today, Visiting Liberty Island is one of the most rewarding experiences for any American. However, visitors who wish to enter the museum, pedestal, or crown must secure tickets, and it’s highly recommended that you procure them well in advance. You have to access it by boat, and you can get passage on a ferry that takes you to both the Statue and Ellis Island from either New York or New Jersey.

Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Statue of Liberty – National Park Service Website