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A photograph of The Statue of Liberty in New York, USA

The Story of the Statue of Liberty

Image Credit: | Above: The Statue of Liberty in New York, USA

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"

The Statue of Liberty

In 1854 there are 427,833 new arrivals to the US. In 1882 the number rises to 788,992. By 1890-1900, there are one million immigrants being greeted by the Statue of Liberty each year, this was how the world made America.

In 1885, the Republic of France, critical naval allies during the American Revolution, donates the largest statue in the world, ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, to the Republic of America. The statue will celebrate America’s century of independence. To ship it, the statue is broken down into 350 pieces. And now, scattered across Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbour, it sits in 214 crates. The problem is that New York is broke. No one can afford to re-assemble it. Six other cities, less affected by the recent recession, have the money and bid to build it.

But Hungarian immigrant, Joseph Pulitzer, owner of America’s biggest newspaper, won’t let Liberty go. A million people read his papers every day and through this, he launches the 30-storey fundraising campaign ever in America. Pulitzer writes,“It would be an irrecoverable disgrace to New York City and the American republic to have France to send us this splendid gift without us even having provided so much as a landing place for it. We must raise the money.”

Pulitzer prints the names and notes attached to the donations which include a group of children who donate a dollar from "the money we saved to go to the circus with." Nearly 121,000 donations flood in from across the country and the construction commences.

Just to hold the 46-metre high statue upright requires a pedestal the height of a 30-storey office block. It becomes the biggest concrete structure in the world, built by over 240 men who work over a grueling winter to complete it. Next, comes Liberty’s enormous iron skeleton and 28,117 kilos of hand sculpted copper wrapping.

The unusual shape makes safety scaffolding impossible so it is as difficult as it is dangerous. 300 copper pieces need to be fitted with more than 300 thousand rivets to the skeleton; her robes have over 3,360 square metres of copper. Her outstretched arm is 12.8 metres long and just one fingernail weighs over one and a half kilos. After six months of construction, Liberty’s face is winched into position. (It’s said the sculptor modelled the face on his own mothers.)

The statue is a functioning lighthouse till 1902 but after 25 years, Liberty’s copper oxidises and turns green and she becomes a beacon to the world. The poet Emma Lazarus famously gives Liberty her voice with the famous words, "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-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Over the next two decades, over 12 million immigrants pass Liberty on the way to Ellis Island. Generally, Irish, Russians and Italians go to the big cities, the Germans and the Scandinavians to the midwest and the farmland. From 1880-1930, 24 million new immigrants arrive in America. A guidebook prepares arrivals which reads,“Forget your customs and ideals. Select a goal and pursue it with all your might. You will experience a bad time but sooner or later you will achieve your goal. Don’t take a moment’s rest. Run.”

HISTORY's brand new series, How The World Made America, explores the stories of those who came and made American what it is today.