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 Statue of Liberty, NY    
Lighthouse accessible by ferry.
Description: Everyone is familiar with the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of the promise of America, but few are probably aware that, for a few years early in its existence, it was also officially a lighthouse operated under the authority of the Lighthouse Board. The lighted torch in Lady Liberty’s right hand had, and still has, great symbolic significance, but at its beginning, it was also used as a navigational aid for ships entering New York Harbor.

Aerial view of Statue of Liberty
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
On November 16, 1886, President Grover Cleveland ordered that the Statue of Liberty “be at once placed under the care and superintendence of the Light-House Board and that it be from henceforth maintained by said Board as a beacon.” The statue stood on twelve-acre Bedloe Island, which was divided into three jurisdictions.

  1. The War Department controlled the eastern part of the island and had police powers over the statue.
  2. The Lighthouse Board controlled three acres at the northwestern corner of the island and had jurisdiction over the statue as a navigational aid.
  3. The American Statue Committee looked after the actual statue itself and the grounds around it and provided ferry service for visitors.

As the monument was readied for its public opening, a lighting apparatus had yet to be installed in the torch – it remains unclear whether Frederic Bartholdi, the statue’s French-born designer, had ever outlined any specific plan for how the statue would be illuminated. Electric lights, then a fairly new invention, were the popular choice. The chief engineer for the lighting project, although not an electrician himself, advocated placing electric lights around the statue’s feet, aiming upwards to flood the statue with light at night – an innovative concept at the time. He also proposed lights in the torch shining straight up into the clouds and around the entire horizon as well through two rows of circular windows made in the copper flame.

The official opening of the Statue of Liberty was marked with great fireworks displays, but the equally anticipated debut of the statue’s electric lighting turned out to be an anticlimax, marked with weeks of false starts, confusion, and grappling with the new technology. The first time the statue’s lights were turned on, their angle was miscalculated, and instead of majestically bathing the statue in light, they cast a shadow that left the statue’s head and shoulders in the dark.

All through the ongoing lighting crisis, the New York World gave a daily, blow-by-blow account of the problems, sparing no one’s feelings in the process. Finally, a system using arc lights powered by a dynamo was designed by James J. Wood of the American Electric Manufacturing Company. The system was widely praised for its simplicity and effectiveness. Wood’s company had donated the dynamo and other lighting equipment to the statue as a patriotic gesture, since Congress had so far failed to approve any funding for the lights, but they had only agreed to operate and maintain the lights for one week after the official opening.

Statue of Liberty in 1894
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress
When the week was up, frantic government officials pleaded for the lights to be left on for one more night so that Frederic Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty, could view the lighting. The sculptor was impressed and reacted favorably. The next day, November 7, 1886, the statue went dark for two weeks. The World reported, “The torch of the Goddess of Liberty is suffering from an attack of red tape.” The Lighthouse Board worked behind the scenes to secure emergency funding and crew, and finally President Cleveland gave the executive order that gave the Board the authority it needed to continue the lighting.

The Statue of Liberty became operational as a lighthouse on November 22, 1886. The American Electric Manufacturing Company continued to maintain the light for a short time, but shortly after Christmas, Albert E. Littlefield was named the station’s keeper. Because he had specialized knowledge of electricity, Littlefield received an annual salary of $1,000, which was several hundred dollars more than most lighthouse keepers received at the time. Littlefield, his family, and his assistant keepers and their families all lived in a three-story post hospital on the northwest corner of the island. The Statue of Liberty’s torch, 305 feet above sea level, contained nine electric arc lamps that could be seen twenty-four miles out to sea.

The Lighthouse Board was apparently not especially pleased with the assignment – but not because of the statue’s imposing size; the engineering challenges of building lighthouses in inaccessible places that could withstand the worst of the elements was routine to the lighthouse establishment. The problem was that they never considered the Statue of Liberty to be important as a navigational aid. As of 1889, it wasn’t even listed as one of New York’s harbor lights. Maintenance costs for the beacon were about $10,000 a year, and came out of the Board’s lighthouse budget. Congress was solicited for special funding for the statue, but to no avail.

In 1892, the lighting of the statue was modified as described in the following Notice to Mariners:

Notice is hereby given that, on or about October 21, 1892, the following changes will be made in the lights and illumination of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, inside Fort Wood, Bedloes Island, New York Bay, New York.

In addition to the light now shown from the torch there will be a vertical beam of red and yellow light seen only by reflection from the haze or dust in the air.

The face and bust of the statue will be illuminated by a powerful search light from one of the salients of the fort.

The coronet will be decorated with red, white, and blue incandescent electric lights.

The pedestal will continue to be illuminated, as heretofore, by arc lamps within the salients, and not visible outside the fort.

As late as 1901, even though the statue had been open to the public for fifteen years, visitor approaches were incomplete and three of the four entrances to the statue were boarded up. The one serviceable entrance was an unpainted wooden stairway, and the steps leading to the crown were lit dimly by kerosene lanterns. The only toilet for visitors on the entire grounds was a single, small shed that hung over the seawall. A cistern on the grounds caved in, leaving a hazardous hole. Post Commander A.C. Taylor wrote: “When it is remembered that hundreds of visitors, climb these dark narrow stairs daily and breathe the suffocating, nauseating air, it is remarkable that so few casualties occur – it is strange that so many people risk their lives by climbing to its head.”

In late 1901, the War Department asked the Lighthouse Board to release its jurisdiction over the statue, which it gladly did. On March 1, 1902, the Statue of Liberty was discontinued as an aid to navigation, and the services of Albert E. Littlefield, the light’s first and only head keeper, were no longer needed. According to the 1900 census, fifty-six-year-old Keeper Littlefield and his wife Lucy had four children, ranging in age from eighteen to eight, living with them on the island at that time. Albert was a machinist working in Maine before being placed in charge of lighting the Statute of Liberty, and when the light was discontinued he continued to work as a machinist in the Third Lighthouse District.

The War Department kept authority over the statue until 1932, when the National Park Service assumed control and over the years transformed the statue into the well-run tourist attraction that it is today.

Head Keepers: Albert E. Littlefield (1886 – 1902).

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.
  3. “Liberty Enlightening the World Part I,” Carole L. Perrault, The Keeper’s Log, Spring 1986.
  4. “Liberty Enlightening the World Part II,” Carole L. Perrault, The Keeper’s Log, Summer 1986.

Location: Located on Liberty Island in New York Harbor.
Latitude: 40.68913
Longitude: -74.0446

For a larger map of Statue of Liberty Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Circle Line boats to the Statue of Liberty National Monument depart form Battery Park in Lower Manhattan and from Liberty State Park in Jersey City. You can also view the statue for free from the Staten Island Ferry. The ferry departs from the Whitehall Terminal at Whitehall Street and South Street in Lower Manhattan and from the St. George Ferry Terminal at Richmond Terrace on Staten Island.

The "lighthouse" is owned by the National Park Service and is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Grounds open, "tower" closed.

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