Even if you’ve never had the opportunity to visit New York City, you know that one of its most popular tourist attractions is the Statue of Liberty. Also known as Lady Liberty, this statue has been a welcome sight in New York’s harbor for over a century. But what about the backstory behind this beautiful statue? The Statue of Liberty may be full of symbolism, but she also has a rich history that most people don’t know.
The statue was a joint effort
Most people think that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French to the United States, but the story runs deeper than this. Yes, the statue was a gift to commemorate a strong alliance between France and the U.S., but both countries agreed to financially contribute to the overall build. While France focused on fundraising and crafting the actual statue, America committed to building the base and covering those costs.
Funding issues stalled progress on the statue
To say that building the Statue of Liberty was a monumental effort is a bit of an understatement. The French historian Edouard de Laboulaye initially pitched the idea for the statue in 1865 with a goal of completion for the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. But raising funds was so difficult that actual production on the statue didn’t begin until 1875. Finances weren’t just an issue for the French. The U.S. delegation also struggled to raise money to build the pedestal.
It took a decade to create the statue
In 1875, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi began working on the statue. He was known for creating large-scale sculptures and was awarded the commission. While he knew how to create the statue’s exterior, he worked with Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel (who created the Eiffel Tower) and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc to create a sturdy steel framework to attach the copper sheets. Bartholdi completed production on the statue in 1884.
Creating the pedestal
While the French were hard at work on the statue, the Americans focused on finding a location, funding, designing, and building the pedestal where the statue would sit. To raise funds, several inventive methods were used including contests, fundraisers and exhibitions. One such contest involved the iconic sonnet that is inscribed on a plaque at the base of the statue. “The New Colossus” was written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, who won one of the contests. Her sonnet includes these memorable lines: “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-tossed to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” However, this plaque wouldn’t be added to the pedestal until 1903.
As completion of the statue neared, Joseph Pulitzer, owner of The World newspaper, used his paper to secure final funding. He leveraged his opinion column to shame wealthy readers into donating toward the pedestal—and it worked. Meanwhile, the American architect Richard Morris Hunt was tapped as the winning designer for the pedestal. He created a granite pedestal in 1884 and donated his production fee toward funding the statue. The U.S. delegation selected Fort Wood on Bedloe’s Island as the statue’s home in Upper New York Bay. Final funding for the pedestal ended in August 1885, and in April 1886, the pedestal was completely built.
Reassembly and dedication
How do you transport a statue that is 151 feet (46 meters)? You don’t just strap it to a barge and hope for the best. After Bartholdi finished production on the Statue of Liberty, it had to be disassembled and packed in over 200 crates to ship to the U.S. for reassembly. The statue didn’t arrive in New York until June 1885. Once on Bedloe’s Island, it took four months to completely reassemble it. On October 28, 1886, President Grover Cleveland oversaw the dedication for the Statue of Liberty in front of a large crowd of well-wishers.
Name changes and jurisdiction
Most people don’t know what Bedloe’s Island or Fort Wood is, let alone where they are located. But present-day Liberty Island underwent name and designation changes before it became what we know it as today. The island and the statue were initially maintained by the United States Lighthouse Board because the statue’s torch was used as a beacon by sailors. In 1901, the War Department took control of the lands even when Fort Wood was designated a National Monument on October 15, 1924.
In 1933, the grounds officially fell under the control of the National Park Service. On September 7, 1937, the National Monument grounds were expanded to include all of Bedloe’s Park, and the island was officially renamed to Liberty Island. In 1965, after Ellis Island was shuttered as an immigration point, it became part of the National Park Service and the Statue of Liberty National Monument.