- Historic Sites
One thing was clear through the rain and the mist: America’s enthusiasm for Miss Liberty matched her colossal dimensions
February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
October 28, 1886, was a day unique in the history of New York City: a day of lolly speeches and colorful heroes on parade, of boisterous crowds—the biggest since Grant’s funeral the year before—and miserable weather and the noisiest, most chaotic: water pageant ever put on in New York Harbor. It was, in the words of the New York Times, the day “a hundred Fourths of July broke loose.” It was the day they unveiled Liberty Enlightening the World, a gigantic statue, a gift from the people of France to the people of the United Slates in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The statue had been built in Paris during the late eighteen seventies and early eighties, from a model by the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi. It was made out of big sheets of hammered copper, about as thick as a silver dollar, welded over an iron framework engineered by Gustave Killel, whose famous lower would rise in Paris a few years laler. It was compleied in 1884, then dismantled, packed into 214 wooden craies, shipped across the Atlantic, and, in June of 1885, unloaded on Beclloe’s Island. This was a twelve-acre plot in New York Harbor that had been the site of, among other things, a pesthouse, a gallows, a military prison, a dump, and a hospital. By October of the following year the statue was all but finished, and, understandably, it was the talk of the town. From crown to toe the Goddess measured 151 feet, a good 50 feet more than the Colossus of Rhodes. Her waist was 35 feet thick, her head 10 feet thick, big enough to hold thirty people. Counting the pedestal, the statue stood over 305 feet, or about 20 feet taller than the steeple on old Trinity Church, then the highest structure on the Manhattan skyline. But above all, seen from the Battery or from Brooklyn Hcighis, from the flats of New Jersey or from the rail ol a Staten Island ferry, Liberty seemed big enough in size and in concept to do what its creator and its donors had intended: it seemed to give both scale and meaning to the vast open space of the harbor. It seemed to say: This is indeed the Gateway to the New World. And that, it seemed to all New York, was reason enough for more than the usual sort of celebration.
Preparations for the event had been front-page news for several days before October 28. There was to be a mammoth parade from Central Park down Fifth Avenue to Broadway and on to the Battery; an unveiling ceremony of a dignity to suit the statue’s size was planned; and the day was to end gloriously with a spectacular display of fireworks in the harbor. The visiting French dignitaries and the receptions in their honor, the military units scheduled to march in the parade, the arrival of the President from Washington, were items of the highest interest and were described in effusive detail. So was the other major topic of the week—the weather. For two days a fine, steady drizzle had been falling, soaking the city, choking the harbor with fog, and giving editorial writers, bandmasters, politicians, and families as far out as Connecticut considerable cause for concern. But the long-awaited day dawned rainless. It was raw and sullen, to be sure. Buildings and streets had a somber look. Along the parade route the red, white, and blue of the Stars and Stripes and the Tricolor hung damp and limp. In the harbor, visibility was limited to a few hundred feet. But, for the moment, there was no rain.
By nine o’clock the crowds filled the sidewalks up and down Fifth Avenue and Broadway. At the side streets enterprising draymen had their wagons fitted up with seats renting for as much as fifty cents. Steps, stoops, roof tops, the best windows, were thick with spectators. Schools were closed. Business, except for restaurants and saloons, was suspended, though a few large stores had taken the trouble to clear their windows of goods and had set up chairs for special friends and visitors. Venders were doing a brisk trade in penny apples, umbrellas, and commemorative medals showing the statue on one side, Bartholdi’s head on the other. Cheap prints of the Brooklyn Bridge, hawked as authentic works by Bartholdi, were also selling well, especially among the recent immigrants. And more than one lithograph of General Grant, left over from the occasion of the previous year, was purchased as a faithful likeness of the great French sculptor.
It was almost 10 A.M. At the far end of Fifth Avenue, up past Fifty-ninth Street, beside the dripping autumn foliage of Central Park, the marchers tuned their instruments, checked over bridles and buttons, and readied themselves for the moment when President Cleveland would start his ride to the reviewing stand at Madison Square.
The President had come up from Washington by special train the evening before, and had spent the night at the home of Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street. At exactly ten o’clock his party came out of the Whitney front door. Cleveland tipped his black silk hat to the applauding crowd. The scarlet-coated Marine band, with John Philip Sousa conducting, struck up a march, and the presidential procession moved off behind General Charles P. Stone, the white-bearded marshal of “Liberty Day.” The official ceremonies had begun, right on time. The streets resounded with a hearty roar; and a thin, chill rain that would last the rest of the day began to fall noiselessly.