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Hail Liberty

July 2024
8min read

One thing was clear through the rain and the mist: America’s enthusiasm for Miss Liberty matched her colossal dimensions


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.

In the next three and a half hours row on row of tossing manes, waving plumes, and slanting bayonets, and more than 20,000 men, followed the President down Fifth Avenue, then moved on down Broadway all the way to the Battery. At the reviewing stand, near City Hall, they passed before an imposing group including Cleveland, Bartholdi, Viscount Ferdinand de Lesseps (the builder of the Suez Canal), and General Phil Sheridan. President Cleveland stood beaming in spite of the drizzle, returning the salutes of each unit that passed, obviously pleased by the warm reception he had received. The first band to go by broke out with the “Marseillaise,” in honor of the French luminaries on the stand. And none thereafter dared break the precedent if they could possibly manage it. There were bands of seventy pieces and bands of seven, bands from Hoboken and Poughkeepsie, Philadelphia, Boston, and Buffalo, bands from most of the city’s armories, theatres, and dance halls—over a hundred in all. Some of their regalia, as one reporter felt obliged to point out, was “somewhat moldy and careworn and a little moth-eaten.” Still the music was “amazingly enthusiastic and discordant.”

Formations of mounted Army Regulars pranced by, followed by four battalions of bluejackets from the Tennessee, the Alliance, and the Yantic, of the North Atlantic Squadron, which had steamed in for the occasion and now lay anchored in the harbor. There were also Rochambeau Grenadiers, Italian volunteers in magnificent gold-trimmed uniforms and feathered shakos, a battalion of fiercely mustached Philadelphia policemen, a carriage with a few ancient veterans of the War of 1812, another full of Mexican War veterans. A division of Grand Army veterans marched by, some in the colorful garb of the Zouaves, some hobbling on wooden legs. There were Elks, Masons, state governors, cane-swinging students from Columbia who gave the President a rousing college cheer, and a red-shirted volunteer fire brigade led by a limping, indestructible local hero named Harry Howard, who got the biggest cheer of anyone. And finally a venerable carriage that had belonged to George Washington went rolling by, pulled by eight dapple-grey Normans.

Sweeping past the President’s stand, the marchers went on down Broadway to Wall Street, where, according to one witness, the tickertape reception was so enthusiastic that “every window appeared to be a paper mill,” then on to the Battery and the rain-soaked crowd that swarmed about the sea wall, hoping for a glimpse of the main attraction of the day, the unveiling. Their hopes, however, were futile. The thick, salt-smelling mist that had enshrouded the city for days shut off all view of the statue, and hid most of the spectacle that was taking place just offshore.

By now the harbor was a honking, tooting, whistling carnival of ships of every imaginable shape and size. There were yachts, ferries, barges, a dozen kinds of launches, shrill-shrieking tugs on a day off, French and American men-of-war, all bunting-bedecked; steamboats, river boats, police boats, sailboats, rowboats, boats big, small, old, new, the decks of some of them so black with sight-seers that they listed almost to the point of toppling into the choppy waters. One big excursion boat, the Grand Republic , had over 3,000 people on board.

Tickets to witness the unveiling and the “grand naval parade” had been on sale for weeks. For fifty or seventy-five cents, thousands clambered aboard steamers with names like Sylvan Dell, Cephus, and Magnolia to enjoy a box-lunch outing that began about eleven and was meant to finish with the evening fireworks. Quite a few of the city’s more popular clubs and fraternal orders had chartered their own boats and fitted them out with brass bands and champagne. The Union League Club had its own steamer, as did the Woman Suffrage Association, the New York Society of Amateur Photographers, the Grand Army veterans, the aldermen, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. A few more adventurous souls chartered their own rowboats and bobbed about through the foul afternoon, narrowly missing the huge throbbing paddle wheels of the steamers and evoking extraordinary remarks from many a frenzied pilot.

The number of ships officially designated to take part in the pageant came to just over 300. Shortly after noon they had started forming two lines in the Hudson, waiting for the President and his party to depart for the unveiling from the foot of West Twenty-third Street. Then, at two forty-five, the Tennessee fired a broadside and every ship with cannon or deck gun, steam whistle or foghorn, joined in as the President’s boat, the Dispatch , covered from prow to stern with flags of all nations, came through at full speed. At Bedloe’s Island the official party was greeted by a twenty-one-gun salute, then quickly ushered to the flag-draped platform at the base of the statue, which, looming above, glistened with rain, its upraised arm hazy in the mist and smoke, its face covered with the French ensign.

After the appropriate introductions had been made, Gilmore’s 22nd Regiment Band played “Hail to the Chief” just loud enough to be heard above the continuing din. After about fifteen minutes, when things had quieted down somewhat, Dr. Richard Storrs, a noted Brooklyn clergyman, began a prayer in the midst of which one tugboat captain let loose a whistle that was quickly answered in kind by his colleagues in the flotilla. “The prayer,” as the Herald commented the following morning, “was conducted under disadvantages such as never before beset a minister of God.”

Next came the doughty de Lesseps, who, dressed in evening clothes, gave his speech bareheaded in the rain; though he spoke in French he managed to still the whistles and impress his audience enormously.

Senator William Evarts of New York followed, and did very well for the first few minutes. But by this time Bartholdi and a few companions had climbed up inside the statue to the torch some 300 feet above; and, on a mistaken signal, he pulled the cord that unveiled the face. The flag fell, and a great cheer went up: “Hail, Liberty!” Everyone was on his feet, every ship responded with a deafening crescendo of whistles and horns, another broadside exploded from the Tennessee , bells rang on the mainland, Gilmore’s band launched into “America”—and Evarts sat down. About twenty minutes after that, the President made a brief acceptance speech in which he called the statue a “token of the affection and consideration of the people of France” and vowed that “we will not forget that Liberty has here made her home; nor shall her chosen altar be neglected. Willing votaries shall keep its fires alive, and they shall gleam upon the shores of our sister Republic in the East. [Great applause.] Reflected thence and joined with answering rays, a stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until liberty shall enlighten the world. [An overwhelming roar of approval.]”

A few closing remarks were made by Chauncey M. Depew, the railroad magnate; Bishop Henry C. Potter said a benediction; and, at twenty minutes to five, the President, amid still another twenty-one-gun salute, left for Jersey City and his train back to Washington. The sunset gun went off on Governor’s Island.

The fireworks had to be postponed a few nights because of the weather. But the Goddess of Liberty had officially taken her stand at the entrance of America’s great harbor, where she would beckon millions from the Old World in the years to come.



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