Skip to main content

The Statue of Liberty

Beginnings of Lady Liberty
The colossal neoclassical sculpture that has stood at the entrance to New York harbor since 1886 symbolizes New York City in the way that the Eiffel Tower means Paris and Big Ben instantly evokes London. The figure of “Liberty Enlightening the World” was a gift from the people of France, and the inspiration for it first came during the American Civil War, when most of the French people strongly approved of the abolition of slavery.

The creation of some monument to express this and to honor the coming centennial of American independence, which had been achieved with the help of France, was first proposed around 1865. The idea was also supported by many French intellectuals as a gesture of opposition to the increasingly repressive rule of Emperor Louis Napoleon in the late 1860s. Following the Franco-Prussian war, the fall of the Second French Empire and the establishment of the Third French Republic, many in France felt that the renewed close ties between the two great republics should be symbolized in some way. During the 1870s plans emerged for a monument to be constructed in France and given to America by the French people but erected and thereafter maintained by the people of the United States. Construction was begun in 1876 in France, but it took a decade for an American site to be found, a pedestal to be built and the statue to be disassembled, transported to New York and re-erected.

The statue came close to being built at the Canal rather than in New York Harbor, according to some accounts of its conception. Around 1865, Édouard de Laboulaye, president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, proposed to the sculptor Fréderic Bartholdi that a statue be built to honor the worldwide struggle against slavery during the 19th century. The statue was also intended in part to celebrate the approaching end of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States, but also to galvanize opposition to imperial government in France and support for the re-establishment of a French republic.

Bartholdi was at the time trying to interest the Khedive of Egypt in a monumental sculpture at the entrance to the Suez Canal, an attempt to reconstruct the lighthouse of Alexandria that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but taking inspiration also from the Colossus of Rhodes, another ancient wonder. The monument was to take the form of an immense female statue, dressed in the garb of a fellah or Egyptian peasant and holding aloft a torch in her extended arm. When the Egyptian project fell through, Bartholdi turned his attention to the American one and went to New York to look for backers in 1871, taking the plans for the giant female statue with him.

Sailing into New York harbor, Bartholdi passed the empty Bedloe’s Island, and was struck by its suitability for a large monument. He inquired and found that the island belonged to the federal government, having been ceded in 1800 by the New York legislature for a harbor fort that was never built. President Ulysses S. Grant was supportive of the plan but financial support was not forthcoming, and Bartholdi returned to France after revising the vestments and headdress of the planned statue along classical Greek lines with the aid of his friend, the sculptor John La Farge. He practiced for the Statue of Liberty with several smaller but still monumental sculptures in France, intended to memorialize the fallen in the Franco-Prussian War just concluded and to inspire support for the new French republic just established.

Building the statue
The plans for the statue underwent several further changes during the 1870s. The figure came to be wearing the gown and cloak characteristic of Roman goddesses, and some accounts have suggested that the woman’s face was modeled after the artist’s mother, Charlotte Beysser Bartholdi. The statue was initially to have been holding a broken chain, but Bartholdi decided that this reference to slavery would be too divisive, and the broken chain was placed at the lady’s feet, partially concealed by her robe. Instead of the chain he put a keystone-shaped tablet (tabula ansata) that evoked the Roman concept of written law and inscribed the tablet with the date of July 4, 1776.

It was clear that a solid statue could not be built in France and transported to America, so Bartholdi enlisted the help of another friend, engineer EugèneViollet-le Duc, to design a supporting structure. Viollet-le Duc came up with a brick pier, over which the skin of the statue would be placed, and decided that thin sheets of copper heated and then hammered into shape in a method called repoussé would provide the necessary strength but need to be less than an inch (25 mm) in thickness and therefore light for its volume.

The planned construction of the statue was announced and fundraising begun in early 1876, in anticipation of the coming American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. ) A gala concert at the recently-opened Paris Opera house, later to be associated with the Pahntom of the Opera, featured a new cantata by Charles Gounod, composer of Faust and Roméo et Juliette, entitled Liberty Enlightening the World.

Money was raised from schoolchildren and in 181 French cities as well as from the wealthy of Paris; descendants of the soldiers who had fought with Lafayette in the Revolutionary War were prominent in fund-raising, but also business interests that were then attempting to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama and hoped for American support in the project. The copper for the project, mined in Norway, was donated by several Parisian industrialists and copper dealers, weighed about 128,000 pounds (58,000 kilos) and was worth about 65,000 francs ($350,000 in 2015).

Only the right arm had been built by the opening of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and that was shipped to America but arrived too late to be included in the exhibition catalogue and was misidentified in some newspapers as “The Colossal Arm” or “Bartholdi’s Electric Light”. Bartholdi had also designed a huge fountain that at first excited more interest, although by the end of the exhibition visitors were climbing to the top of the arm to view the fairgrounds. After the exhibition closed, the arm was displayed in Madison Square Park for several years and then returned to France when the rest of the statue was ready for it to be attached.

Bartholdi also visited several cities with a large painting of the proposed statue and recruited an “American Committee” to raise funds for its eventual erection; this committee included a wealthy young Harvard student and future president named Theodore Roosevelt. On his last day in office in 1877, President Grant signed a congressional resolution authorizing the acceptance of the statue, and on the next day incoming President Rutherford B. Hayes accepted the statue and designated Bedloe’s Island as its eventual home.

Construction continued back in France and after several years money ran short. Models of the statue, tickets to watch construction at the workshops of Gaget, Gauthier and Company and lottery tickets for prizes including silver plates depicting the statue and terracotta statues of smaller scale were sold. The head when completed was exhibited at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. Engineer Viollet-le Duc proved unable to attach the copper plates of the statue’s body securely to the central pier and died in 1879 while working on this problem. Gustave Eiffel was hired to complete the work, and replaced the brick pier with an iron scaffold which was later to be the basis of the tower bearing his name.

He also developed a method of hanging the copper plates on the scaffold which was an early example of curtain wall construction, in which the exterior surface of a structure is not load-bearing but is supported by an internal framework; this became an important technique for constructing very tall buildings. The replacement of masonry by an iron skeleton allowed the design to be changed, to add an observation platform on the outside and internal staircases on which visitors could climb to the crown.

This also meant that the statue could be built in France and then disassembled and reassembled in New York, rather than having to wait for the brick support structure to be constructed in the United States before attaching the copper. The first rivet, fixing a copper plate to the statue’s big toe, was driven in 1880 by Levi P. Morton, U.S. Ambassador to France and later Vice President. It took four years to attach all of the copper plates, and the finished statue was presented to Morton on July 4, 1884.

Installing the Statue
Problems now arose on the other side of the Atlantic: an economic depression affected fund-raising and the construction industry, and construction of the Washington Monument also came to a halt at this time. There was increasing reluctance to pay for the transport and erection of a foreign monument, and the 1884 election brought the Democrats back into power after 24 years. Incoming President Grover Cleveland had vetoed an appropriation for the statue’s pedestal as governor of New York, and promised to do the same to any federal appropriation.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, was now in overall charge of the project and persuaded the French government to pay for the costs of transportation. There was still opposition to paying for the statue’s pedestal: the New York Times editorialized that “no true patriot can countenance any such expenditures for bronze females in the present state of our finances”, while Harper’s Weekly wished that the French had “gone the whole figure, and given us statue and pedestal at once”. At length, a national fund drive led by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, which promised to print the name of every contributor, raised $100,000, the equivalent of $2.3 million today.

One of the fund-raising events was an auction of art and manuscripts, and poet Emma Lazarus was asked to donate an original work. Although she at first declined, saying that she could not write a poem about a statue, she realized that the statue would have an electrifying effect on arriving immigrants and received inspiration after working with poverty-stricken Jewish refugees from Eastern European pogroms, and produced in 1883 the sonnet The New Colossus that was later engraved on the pedestal. The statue arrived in crates on the French steamer Isère in June, 1885, and the pedestal was finally finished in April of the next year.

There were still more problems to overcome in the erection of the statue over the next year. The pedestal was not wide enough to erect scaffolding, so workers had to hang perilously from the head on ropes as they attached the copper plates. The Army Corps of Engineers vetoed Bartholdi’s plan to illuminate the statue with floodlights on a balcony attached to the torch, fearing that this would blind the pilots of passing ships and lead to collisions. At the last movement, Bartholdi had holes cut in the torch and put the lights inside. A power plant had to be built at the base of the statue to generate electricity for the torch, and Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Central Park in Manhattan, was engaged to landscape the island.

The dedication, presided over by President Cleveland, took place on a gray and rainy October 28, 1886 and was not without its problems either. The statue was covered by a French flag, and was accidentally unveiled too early, while New York senator William Evarts, chairman of the American committee, was still speaking. Only dignitaries were allowed on Bedloe’s Island, and no women were permitted except Bartholdi’s wife and the granddaughter of de Lesseps, for fear that ladies might be injured in the crowd.

This angered New York suffragettes, who chartered a boat and sailed by the island loudly demanding the vote for women. The planned fireworks display had to be postponed until November 1. There was, however, one event of lasting significance. A parade from Madison Square Park to the tip of Manhattan preceded the dedication, after which President Cleveland and other dignitaries embarked on boats to the island. As the parade passed down Wall Street, stock exchange employees threw armfuls of ticker tape from the windows; this was the first of many New York “ticker tape” parades.

From dedication to the present
It was unclear at the start who owned the statue or what to do with it. It was first planned to be used as a lighthouse, but the light from the torch could barely be seen at night. The city of New York turned the statue over to the United States Lighthouse Board in 1887 but it proved hopeless as a lighthouse, and was transferred to the War Department in 1901. Over the next decade the slow oxidation of the copper skin exposed to air and moisture produced the natural pigment verdegris, which gradually turns exposed copper green; there was some consternation about the possibility of corrosion and a plan to paint the statue was floated, but it was concluded that the green patina actually protected the copper and only the inside of the statue was painted. Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore, was commissioned to redesign the torch in 1915 and replaced most of the copper with stained glass, thereby finally illuminating the statute effectively.

The statue was damaged in the Black Tom explosion of 1916, in which German saboteurs blew up carloads of dynamite awaiting shipment to Britain and France. The torch was closed to the public, and has remained so since, and army troops, chiefly the Signal Corps, were stationed on the island and remained there until 1923. President Calvin Coolidge declared the statue a National Monument in 1924, and the number of visitors began to grow. The statue was again transferred, this time to the National Park Service in 1933, and the entire island became a national park in 1937. The island, now renamed Liberty Island, was combined in 1965 with the adjacent Ellis Island immigration facility to form the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

A new lighting system was installed for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, but Lady Liberty was showing considerable wear and tear by the 1980s. A careful examination by French and American technicians in 1982 showed that the head had been installed 2 feet off center in 1886, the right arm was loose and there was a significant risk of structural failure in high winds. A national campaign raised $350 million, and the statue was closed from 1984 to 1986 for extensive reconstruction in preparation for its centennial. Eiffel’s iron structure was substantially replaced with corrosion-resistant stainless steel, the torch, which had been leaking water since the 1916 repairs, was replaced with an exact replica of Bartholdi’s original, and a new lighting system was installed before a rededication on July 4, 1986 by President Ronald Reagan and French President François Mitterrand.

The statue was closed after the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the pedestal only was reopened to visitors in 2004. Access to the statue itself again became possible in 2009, but the number of visitors was limited until elevators, staircases and restrooms could be renovated. The statue was closed for this purpose in 2011, but on the day after it was reopened in 2012 had to be closed again because of Hurricane Sandy, which did not affect the statue but caused severe damage on the island and to its ferry docks. The statue was again reopened on July 4, 2013.

How to Get to the Island

The National Park Service maintains the statue and island, but transportation to and from the island and around it is provided by commercial boat lines; private boats may not dock at Liberty Island. Several boat operators provided service to the island until 1953, when an exclusive contract was signed with the Circle Line sightseeing company. Circle Line served the island until 2007, and continues to offer several excursions around the Statue of Liberty. Statue Cruises, a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Hornblower Cruises, received a 10-year contract in 2007 to provide service to Liberty Island from several points in Manhattan and New Jersey.

Statue Cruises and its parent company, Hornblower, began as a charter yacht company in 1980 and expanded into the high-speed ferry and riverboat casino businesses. Hornblower came to operate 30 ships in 8 California ports, and in 2006 won the National Park Service contract to provide ferry service from San Francisco to Alcatraz Island. A hybrid ferry, combining solar power, wind power and diesel engines, was developed to provide this service. The company operated shuttle and excursion services on Lake Tahoe in Nevada and land transportation to Squaw Valley Ski Resort between 1997 and 2002, but sold this in the latter year to its competitor, Aramark. A Canadian subsidiary took over the operation of boat tours in the Niagara Falls Gorge in 2012. Statue Cruises also operates ferry service between Jersey City, New Jersey and the World Financial Center terminal in Lower Manhattan.

The Statue Cruises excursions to the Statue of Liberty depart from Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan and from Liberty State Park in New Jersey. Battery Park can be reached on the 1 Local subway, which terminates at the park (South Ferry), or by the 4 or 5 Express on the Lexington Avenue line to Bowling Green, or R or W local trains from Brooklyn or Queens to Whitehall Street. The M1, M6 and M15 bus lines also end at South Ferry. Tickets are sold in Castle Clinton, the historic fort on the Battery that defended Manhattan island.By car, which can be difficult because of very limited parking, the ferries can be reached from the West Side by the West Side Highway (Route 9A) to Battery Park, and from the East Side by Exit 1 from FDR Drive (Battery Park).

New Jersey ferry departures are from Liberty State Park, next to the Communipaw Terminal of the New Jersey Central Railroad, where for a century commuters transferred from trains to ferries to Manhattan. There is ample parking, and the park can be reached from Exit 14B of the New Jersey Turnpike. The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line of New Jersey Transit, stops at the Liberty State Park station, which is about a one-mile walk from the ferry. PATH trains from Manhattan connect with the Light Rail line at Hoboken and Newport stations. Passengers who take the Statue Cruises ferry from Manhattan to New Jersey save $2.00 on ferry fare from New Jersey to Liberty Island.

Fares, Discounts and Hours of Operation

There is no charge to visit the national monument, but a small fee has been added for access to the statue’s crown since the recent renovation. Ferry fares are the same for New Jersey and Manhattan departures; passengers may depart from one and return to the other but may not reboard the boat after returning to either Battery Park or Liberty State Park. A Crown Ticket with access to the top of the statue is $21.00 for adults, $17.00 for seniors (62 and above) and $12.00 for those under 17; tickets to the island with or without a visit to the Pedestal are $18.00 for adults, $14.00 for seniors and $9.00 for those 4 to 12, with children under 4 free. A ferry ticket with a guided tour and admission to an exhibit by the French artist JR costs $43.00 for adults and $39.00 for seniors.

Tickets also include admission to the adjacent Ellis Island immigration museum and audio tours in multiple languages of both islands. There are several combination ticket packages available: the New York Citypass combines the statue and 5 other attractions, ferry tickets can be combined with admission to the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center and savings are available for ferry passengers on the BigBus sightseeing tours.

There are concessions for food and drink on all ferries, but food and drink must be finished before visiting the statue or placed along with backpacks in lockers that are available for rental. There are also food and gift shops on Liberty and Ellis Islands. Ferries leave Battery Park every 15 to 20 minutes during the summer months, depart slightly less often during the Spring and Fall and operate every 25 minutes on winter weekends. The Liberty State Park schedule offers departures every half hour in the Summer, every 70 minutes in Spring and Fall and five trips a day with an additional return at 5:00 p.m. during the Winter. Tickets can be reserved online and printed at home.

Other Ways to see the Statue
If you do not want to walk on the Island, visit the Pedestal or ride up to the Crown, there are still several fun ways to see the Statue. The Staten Island Ferry is New York’s greatest sightseeing bargain; it operates every 15 to 30 minutes 24 hours a day from Whitehall Street at the tip of Manhattan, and it is free. It also offers a good view of the Statue as well as the Manhattan skyline. The Circle Line passes Liberty Island on its full 3-hour circumnavigation of Manhattan island, and also offers a 75-minute cruise of the harbor with close-up views of the Statue. New York Water Taxi, a division of Circle Line, offers a 60-minite Statue of Liberty cruise during the day and a night-time narrated cruise with a champagne toast. An additional package combines the evening cruise with a 15-minute helicopter ride over the island and the Statue. For the more adventurous, a 30-minute white-knuckle ride on the speedboat Shark visits the Statue and tours the harbor at high speed.

The Circle cruises depart from Pier 83 at 42nd Street and 12th Avenue, and the Water Taxi excursions leave from Pier 16 at South Street Seaport on the Lower East Side. Lady Liberty Cruises depart from Port Washington on Long Island and travel along the “Gold Coast” and “Millionaires Row” of the North Shore before touring the harbor and circling Liberty Island; these excursions offer cocktails and dinner, and operate in the evenings from April through October.

After almost 130 years and many tribulations, the State of Liberty remains the symbol of New York and also of America. From a short cruise to a day-long visit, and from a free ferry ride to a helicopter excursion or dinner sailing, there are many ways to experience and enjoy the great lady of New York harbor.