People think of the Statue of Liberty as an all-American symbol, but she’s not, really. Born and bred in France, she was intended to symbolise not one country but rather an abstract, revolutionary idea: liberty, for everyone, everywhere.
The idea for Lady Liberty, whose proper given name is Liberty Enlightening the World, was allegedly born at a dinner party in 1865, when the host, French Senator Edouard-Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, suggested presenting a gift to America in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Within a few years, sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi had received an official commission, but funding and planning difficulties delayed the statue’s completion until 1884, long past the U.S. centennial.
It wasn’t until 1886 that the 151-foot-tall copper-clad statue finally took her place on top of the 27,000-ton stone-and-concrete pedestal. Enclosed by the star-shaped walls of Fort Wood on Bedloe’s Island (now Liberty Island), the statue sits just over a mile from lower Manhattan. Lady Liberty’s timing couldn’t have been better: beginning in 1892, the U.S. had the largest wave of immigrants in its history. For many of the newcomers arriving at the port of New York, the Statue of Liberty became the first and most perfect glimpse of their new land.
Today, you can reach the island by tour boat from Battery Park. Ranger-guided tours take visitors on to the lower promenade of Fort Wood and then up to the pedestal’s observation platform for a view of the statue’s interior framework, designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). Liberty’s crown is no longer open to visitors, and her torch has been off-limits since 1916 after it was damaged when German saboteurs blew up a munitions dump on nearby Black Tom Island. The torch was replaced during the 1980s and the original now sits in the lobby museum.
Slightly to the north, and accessible by the same tour boats, Ellis Island was the processing station for roughly 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. A six-year renovation in the 1980s rescued Ellis Island from disuse, turning it into a moving memorial and interpretive centre, where an intricate computer database allows Americans to research their heritage and retrace their ancestors’ arrival.
A good view of Lady Liberty and the Manhattan skyline can also be found on the Staten Island Ferry, which runs to and from New York’s outermost borough—and it’s free too. For a longer ride, the Circle Line offers sightseeing around the harbour or all the way around Manhattan Island—it’s a New York classic.