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On October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty was officially dedicated in a day-long celebration led by President Grover Cleveland. The festivities included a land parade through Manhattan, a naval parade on the Hudson River and an unveiling ceremony on Bedloe’s island.
Although not a complete wash-out like the dedication of the pedestal cornerstone two years prior, the weather on October 28th was not ideal for New Yorkers to catch a glimpse of Lady Liberty as she was covered in a dense fog that only began to let up later in the afternoon.
The land parade began around 9AM in the morning with militiamen from the National Guard appearing on Fifth Avenue and Madison Square where President Cleveland was perched in a reviewing stand with the statue’s designer Frederic Bartholdi.
The New York Times reported:
“The parade which wound its way through the city’s streets yesterday was one of the largest ever seen here, and it was notable for the amount of enthusiasm which it evoked… The display of banners and flags, and similar devices was remarkable for its variety… The marshals, commanders, and officers of all civic divisions carried the French colors, in many instances wound around their chests in sashes.”
Once the entire parade had presented itself to the President, he and Bartholdi were taken by carriage to the Hudson to board a yacht for Bedloe’s Island. It was estimated that upwards of a million people watched the parade process from Madison Square down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square Park, then down Broadway past City Hall and down Park Row. When it passed the New York Stock Exchange, traders took to throwing ticker tape out the windows which is the unofficial start of New York’s ticker tape parade tradition.
A photo taken of the river traffic around Bedloe’s Island on the day of Liberty’s dedication. Photo via Library of Congress.
On the Hudson, a nautical parade began at 12:45 when President Cleveland’s yacht crossed over to Bedloe’s Island. It was reported that the river was so crowded that it looked like a “never-ending flotilla” all the way from the East River around the Battery in the Hudson (then still commonly referred to as the North River).
By 3pm, the mist was starting to lift as President Cleveland, Bartholdi and other dignitaries gathered on a special platform under the Statue on Bedloe’s Island, where a series of speeches were given. The Statue of Liberty’s face was shrouded in a French flag which was cued to be pulled back after the Chairman of the New York Committee Senator William M. Evart’s speech. Bartholdi himself was supposed to pull the cord that would reveal the statue’s face, but he misunderstood a pause in Evart’s speech as the cue, thus revealing Liberty’s face prematurely and cutting off Evart’s speech. The Times described the revelry that ensued:
“The whistles blew, the guns boomed, the bands played, the drums rolled, and the throngs on the island and the river shouted one thundering paean of acclamations that swept down the Bay on the wings of the northeast gale and smote the hills of Staten Island with a huge shock of sound. Thought the mist in every direction could be seen leaping sudden, sharp flashes of light, and then the peal of guns echoed across the water.”
Humorously it was added:
“It was the end of the oration of Mr. Evarts. What he might of said had he spoken out of the fullness of his heart at that moment will never be known, because he sat down.”
President Cleveland, who spoke next, accepted France’s gesture by making a very forward-looking statement about a nation only 21 years out from a devastating civil war:
“Mr. Chairman: The people of the United States accept from their brethren of the French Republic with gratitude to-day this grand and imposing work of art which we here inaugurate… We are not here today to bow before the representative of a fierce and war like god, filled with wrath and vengeance, but, instead, we contemplate our own peaceful deity keeping watch before the open gates of America, and greater than all that have been celebrated in ancient song.”
The ceremony was not without its controversies. Very few woman were allowed on Bedloe’s Island for safety reasons. The organizers feared the women would be crushed in the moving crowds because of their dresses. This incensed members of the suffragists who rented a boat to get as close to Bedloe’s Island and protest. They aptly pointed out that the Liberty was personified as a woman and thus women should have certain liberties like the right to vote.
“Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed.”
In 1986, the Statue of Liberty was given another grand ceremony for her centennial when she was reopened after a two year closure for restoration. July 3-6 was officially called “Liberty Weekend” with President Regan and French President Francois Mitterrand both on hand to celebrate.