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From Paris to New York: The Statue of Liberty’s Once-in-a-Lifetime Journey

Updated: 6 days ago

Statue of Liberty

You are the Statue of Liberty– conceived, born, and raised in Paris, France. Suddenly, everything goes dark, and when you come to, you find yourself living on a pedestal, in another part of the world, beneath the rays of a large radiate crown, in a beautiful bay, with a beautiful torch. And you ask yourself, "Well, how did I get here?”


To answer that question, you’ll have to travel back to the year 1865, when Frenchman and abolitionist, Édouard de Laboulaye, in an after-dinner chat with his friend, sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, pitches the idea of presenting a monumental gift from the people of France to the people of the United States to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Bartholdhi hops right on board and, inspired by Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, sets about designing and constructing “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” (your full name).


Statue of Liberty Hand and Torch

But by the time 1876 rolls around and the Centennial is upon us, you’re still a work in progress. Bartholdi sends just a part of you—your arm carrying the torch—to be displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia as a sort of (macabre) coming attraction. Why? Because when France proposed you as a gift to the United States, they asked Americans to chip in and provide the pedestal. And though eventually Americans won’t be able to imagine New York Harbor without you, right now they’re not particularly keen on the idea of raising the funds required to (literally) support you. So Bartholdi sends along your arm with the torch as a way to raise attention and money.

It does raise attention, but it also raises concerns about fate of the rest of your body and, in September 1876, the New York Times reports that “the statue has been suspended in consequence of a lack of funds,” writing:

But arms without any accompanying woman would be utterly valueless, and what is true in this respect of a live woman is equally true of a bronze one. Had the French sculptor honestly intended to complete the statue of "Liberty," he would have begun it at its foundation, modeling first the boot, then the stocking, then the full leg in the stocking.

From present appearances we have now all of the statue that we shall have unless we are willing to pay the cost of finishing it, and it is more than doubtful if the American public is ready to undertake any such task. (New York Times, Sept. 29, 1876)

In response Bartholdi, as good a negotiator as he is a sculptor, says when the rest of your body is completed, maybe it should just join your arm in Philadelphia, and you should live there. Within months New York announces your arm and torch will be displayed in Madison Square Garden while they await the rest of you, and there it stays from 1876 to 1882 (when it’s sent back to France). 

Still New Yorkers are slow to empty their pockets. So Boston gets in on the act, suggesting maybe you’d be better off in their harbor, which ultimately inspires New York to raise the money out of spite:

This statue is dear to us, though we have never looked upon it, and no third-rate town is going to step in and take it from us. Philadelphia tried that in 1876, and failed. Let Boston be warned in time that she can't have our Liberty. We have more than a million people in this City who are resolved that that great light-house statue shall be smashed into minute fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor. (New York Times, Oct. 3, 1882)

Okay, maybe not the purest of motivations, but it has the desired effect. New York commences with more aggressive fundraising measures, including benefit concerts, art exhibits, and auctions—among them the 1883 Art Loan Exhibition, where Emma Lazarus donates her poem “The New Colossus,” which, twenty years later, be inscribed on a bronze plaque within your pedestal.


Constructing the Statue of Liberty

Meanwhile, back in Paris, Bartholdi turns his attention from financial support to structural support, and hires civil engineer Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), to design your iron framework. Rather than designing a rigid structure that will eventually cause your skin to develop stress cracks the likes of which no amount of moisturizing will address, he attaches a secondary skeleton to your central pylon that will enable you to move slightly with the winds of New York Harbor. He also devises  a mesh of metal straps, known as “saddles," to loosely connect the skeleton to your skin, which will allow for weather-related expansion and contraction. Thus you become one of the earliest examples of curtain wall construction, in which the exterior of the structure is not load-bearing, but is instead supported by an interior framework. As if being a 151-foot tall statue composed of 31 tons of copper and 125 tons of steel wasn’t enough of a flex.

You’re fully completed in 1884, but you cool your unshackled heels in Paris a little longer, letting the days go by while, back in the United States, General Charles Pomeroy Stone oversees construction of the granite and concrete pedestal—designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt—that will bring you to your full height of 305 feet. 


Statue of Liberty Being Loaded Onto the Isere ship in Rouen, France

At last it’s time for you to cross the Atlantic, and you are disassembled into 350 pieces and packed into 214 specially-built crates. A special train with seventy cars transports the crates from Paris to the port of Rouen, so they can be loaded onto the steam-and-sail gunboat Isère for transport to the United States.

Isère is led by Commander Lespinasse De Saune, but it falls to 19-year-old French Lieutenant Rodolphe Victor de Drambour to oversee the shipment. When he realizes the ship’s hatches are too small for the enormous crates, he cuts a hole in the side of the ship and pushes the crates straight into the hold. (Never underestimate the ingenuity of a 19-year-old with a hacksaw.) 

Statue of Liberty Arrives in New York Harbor

Isère sets sail on May 21, 1885. Throughout a 72-hour storm, Drambour never leaves the bridge, though the crates shift wildly and threaten to capsize the boat. Twenty-seven days after setting sail—and two days after his 20th birthday—he drops anchor off Sandy Hook, and is welcomed by the New York World, the New York Yacht Club, and the U. S. Fleet. 

Now your crates are off-loaded onto shuttle boats and brought to Bedloe's Island for storage while you wait another ten months for your pedestal to be completed.

Construction (again)

Construction of the Statue of Liberty

The pedestal is finished in 1886, and you are reassembled with surprising speed by a construction crew—many of whom are new immigrants. The first part to be reconstructed is your iron framework, and the rest of you follows. All of the work is completed without the use of scaffolding; construction materials are hoisted into place by steam driven cranes and derricks. 

How does the crew know where all of your various parts should go? Luckily, Bartholdi had a plan for that. While you were still in France and your shell was being assembled, each piece was assigned a number or figure. “Pieces that lined up next to each other had identical figures on sides which needed to fit together, creating a reassembly map. Each piece had a row of small holes on its edges, and when adjacent pieces lined up, their holes coincided so they could be riveted together.”


Finally, on October 28,1886, you are officially unveiled in your new home, and some one million New Yorkers turn out to cheer for you. After all you’ve been through, that has to feel pretty good. 

There are a couple more milestones—in 1924 you are designated as a National Monument, and in1984 you undergo a major restoration (let’s face it, weather takes a toll—all that water dissolving and water removing). But aside from that, where you stood in 1886 is where you find yourself today, over a century later—a shining beacon of hope and freedom for people everywhere. Same as you ever were.

Unveiling the Statue of Liberty 1886


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