Statue of Liberty Lighthouse

New York, New York - 1886 (1886**)

Photo of the Statue of Liberty Lighthouse.

History of the Statue of Liberty Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-07-27.

Everyone knows that the Statue of Liberty, perched on a massive granite pedestal in New York Harbor, stands for freedom. However, not many people know that for a period of sixteen years, the Statue of Liberty was used as a lighthouse and was under the operation of the Lighthouse Board.

The idea of the Statue of Liberty is said to come from a conversation between Édouard René de Laboulaye, the president of the French Antislavery Society and Frédéric Bartholdi, a French sculptor. Laboulaye was a supporter of the Union during the Civil War, and at the end of the war and the abolition of slavery, proposed that a gift be built in the United States on behalf of France.

In calling attention to the democracy and the abolition of slavery in the United States, Laboulaye was hoping that the French would be inspired to call for their own democracy in the face of a repressive monarchy. Although Laboulaye and Bartholdi talked about the project, little was done due to the onset of the Franco-Prussian War.

In June of 1871, Bartholdi traveled to the United States. Upon his arrival in New York Harbor, he began looking for a suitable location for the statue. He was drawn to Bedloe's Island as every ship that arrived in the harbor would have to pass by the island. He later learned that the island was already owned by the U.S. Government, and after speaking with President Ulysses S. Grant, was assured that the site could be used for the statue.

It would be several more years before the announcement of the statue would be released. However, in the September 1875 announcement, the statue was given an official name, Liberty Enlightening the World. The plan was for the French to finance the statue; the Americans would finance for the pedestal.

Bartholdi returned to Paris in 1877 and focused on finishing the statue's head. When the head was finished, it was exhibited at the Paris World's Fair in 1878. After an engineer, Viollet-le-Duc became ill and passed away in 1879, Bartholdi was able to obtain the services of Gustave Eiffel, who would go on to design and construct the Eiffel Tower in 1887.

Eiffel made several design changes which allowed the statue to be constructed in France, then be disassembled for transport to the United States. By July 4, 1884, the statue was completed and the French government agreed to pay for its transport to New York.

Back in America, it was decided that the pedestal would be erected in Fort Wood, an abandoned Army base in the shape of an eleven-point star on Bedloe's Island. The original proposal for the pedestal was for it to be 114 feet in height, however, due to financial issues, it was reduced to 89 feet. Construction of the foundation began in 1883, and the cornerstone was laid in 1884.

Once word came that progress had been made on the pedestal, the statue was disassembled and crated in January 1885 for its journey. The statue arrived in New York aboard the French Steamer Isére on June 17, 1885 to a crowd of more than 200,000 people.

The pedestal was completed in April 1886. After that, the assembly of the statue started immediately. Bartholdi had planned to install floodlights on the balcony of the torch, however, that plan was denied by the Army Corps of Engineers with the fear that the lights would blind ship's pilots as they passed by the statue.

Instead, the portholes were cut in the torch and the lights placed inside. The torch was then covered with gold leaf, which was gold that has been hammered into thin sheets commonly used for gilding.

To prepare the statue for inauguration, President Grover Cleveland placed Major General J. M. Schofield, U.S. Army, in charge of operations. General Schofield delegated the task of illuminating the statue to First Lieutenant of Engineers, John Millis.

The engineer-in-chief for the erection of the statue had already made an informal agreement with the American Electric Light Manufacturing Company of New York to build and furnish an electric plant on the island, work which had already begun

At a meeting on September 28, 1886 between the engineer-in-chief, the American committee, and Lieutenant Millis, the committee declined to approve the action of the engineer-in-chief as they felt the decision was so far removed from their control that they weren't authorized to act without involvement from the government.

Lieutenant Millis looked over the plan presented by the American Electric Light Manufacturing Company and the progress of the electric plant and reported back to his superiors that he was satisfied that the company could finish the work in time for the statue's inauguration. Further consideration was given to the fact that the company offered to erect and furnish the plant at no cost to the government.

On October 11, 1886, Lieutenant Millis submitted the following plan to General Schofield:

It is proposed to place ten arc lamps in the flame of the torch, cutting out the sides of the flame and covering the openings with glass so as to render all the lamps visible from all points of the compass. The flame is made of sheet copper without interior bracing, and is built up of plates riveted at the seams. In shape it is quite irregular but its interior height is about 4 feet in the clear, and its horizontal section at the widest part is elliptical and about 6 feet by 7 feet. It is large enough to contain the lamps and give necessary room for their attendance.

He went on to recommend that the best option for providing the necessary light was a 360° fourth-order Fresnel lens. However, as there was none available in the country at the time, and not enough time to have one shipped, he agreed that the above plan was the best option.

The steam plant on Bedloe's Island was completed and ready for operation on October 26, 1886. Unfavorable weather conditions pushed the first initial illumination of the Statue of Liberty to November 1, 1886 at 7:35 p.m. Fireworks were set off from Bedloe's and Governor's Islands as well as the Battery in New York.

The terms of the contract called for the lighting plant to be operated at no cost to the government on the night of the inauguration and for one week thereafter. The last night of the statue's illumination, Frederic Bartholdi was in attendance and was very satisfied with the illumination. As there were no additional funds to keep the torch illuminated, it was discontinued on November 7, 1886.

On November 16, President Grover Cleveland ordered the light in the Statue of Liberty to be placed under the superintendence of the Lighthouse Board and that it be maintained by the Lighthouse Board as a beacon. Per the presidential order, the Lighthouse Board reinstated the light and it was exhibited for the first time as an aid to navigation on November 22, 1886.

For a short time, an engineer of the American Electric Manufacturing Company maintained the lighting system in the statue. On December 27, 1886, Albert E. Littlefield was appointed as the first head keeper of the Statue of Liberty. As Littlefield had specialized knowledge of electricity, he was paid several hundred dollars more per year, with a salary of $1,000 per annum.

Along with the head keeper, the station also had several assistant keepers to help with the duties. All keepers and their families lived in a three-story brick hospital building, which stood at the northwest end of the island.

Electricity for the nine arc lamps within the torch was provided by a dynamo, which was built by James Wood of American Electric Manufacturing Company. By 1888, the Lighthouse Board was requesting $50,000 to complete the pedestal. It was never appropriated as the Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board through 1893 repeated the request.

In 1890, major work was undertaken as outlined in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board:

263. Liberty Enlightening the World (Statue of Liberty), on Bedloe's Island, New York Harbor, New York - Contracts were made in April, 1890, for an incandescent light plant, and in May, 1890, for a dynamo generator. Eleven new lamp houses for the lights about the base of the statue were built, and the new incandescent electric light plant for lighting the interior of the statue and pedestal, and the engine house and keeper's dwelling were completed. A dynamo electric generator, for the new lamp to be placed in the torch, was also completed. Supplies such as carbons, oars, rope, row-locks, water, fuel, etc., were furnished. Details of the above work are given in the report of Lieutenant Millis, U.S.A., accompanying this report as an appendix.

Over the next few years, only minor repairs were made, nothing worthy of noting in the Board's Annual Report. However, in 1898, the Board noted that the running expenses were reduced when a new engine was installed. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1898 details the work:

367. Liberty Enlightening the World, New York - The running expenses were reduced by the substitution of a 10-horsepower oil engine for the Armington Sims steam engine to run the electric plant. The excavations made by the removal of the stone taken from the 14 gun platforms to repair the sea wall were filled in with soil, graded, and sown with grass seed. Repairs were made.

Although some books and resources proclaim that when the Statue of Liberty's torch, standing 305 feet above sea level, was electrified, the nine arc lamps were visible from twenty-four miles out to sea. The reality was that the beam from the torch was faint and barely visible from Manhattan.

Although the Lighthouse Board attempted to upgrade the illumination system in the torch over the years, the statue's design made for a poor lighthouse, and it remained nearly invisible at night. For this reason, the Lighthouse Board never really considered the Statue of Liberty a critical aid to navigation. In fact, the statue wasn't even listed in an 1889 report of New York Harbor's lights.

Several things led to the downfall of the Statue of Liberty as a lighthouse. The yearly cost of maintaining the statue as a lighthouse was said to be nearly $10,000 per year, much more than other lighthouses, Congress was not being forthcoming with funds to support the light, and the reduction in members of the American Statue Committee, which diminished the hope to successfully raise funds.

President Theodore Roosevelt, a one time member of the New York Committee, ordered the Statue of Liberty to be transferred to the War Department in November 1901. When presented with the transfer request, the Lighthouse Board put up no argument and ceded its jurisdiction as it was of little use to mariners. The Statue of Liberty was officially discontinued as an aid to navigation on March 1, 1902.

Although the Statue of Liberty made a terrible lighthouse, it quickly became a landmark that defined the New York City skyline. During the early 1900s when many Europeans were immigrating to the United States, most entered through Ellis Island. Many reported that when their ships arrived in New York Harbor and they saw the statue for the first time, it evoked powerful feelings within them and they found the statue very welcoming.

In 1924, the Statue of Liberty was declared a National Monument by President Calvin Coolidge, and in 1937, it was transferred to the National Park Service by President Franklin Roosevelt, thus beginning its transformation into a park. Many of the unused Army buildings were demolished and the grounds graded and seeded.

It wasn't until 1956 that an Act of Congress officially renamed Bedloe's Island to Liberty Island. Starting in 1982, it was announced that the statue needed major restoration work. This was undertaken in preparation for the statue's centennial, slated for July 4, 1986.

Following the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, both the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Island were closed to the public. The island and pedestal reopened to visitors in August 2004, but due to the difficulty of evacuation should an emergency arise, the statue remained closed.

Five years later, the Statue of Liberty reopened to a limited number of visitors each day. But the reopening was short lived as it closed several months later on October 11, 2009 to install new elevators, and bring other facilities on the island up to code. It would reopen on October 28, 2012, only to close a day later due to Hurricane Sandy. Although the statue was unharmed during the hurricane, it destroyed much of the infrastructure on the island.

The Statue of Liberty and Liberty Island reopened to visitors on July 4, 2013. It remained open for several months, but then closed in October of 2013 as part of the U.S. federal government shutdown. The shutdown furloughed 800,000 federal employees and shuttered federally funded museums, parks, and monuments. It has since been reopened.


  1. Northeast Lights - Lighthouses and Lightships, Robert G. Bachand, 1989.
  2. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  3. Wikipedia website.

Directions: The Statue of Liberty is located on Liberty Island in New York Harbor.

Access: There are no shortage of tour companies that will transport you to Liberty Island, however, the Circle Line Tour and Statue Cruises are probably the most widely known companies. The State of Liberty is open for climbing, but please note that advance reservations are required and are available through The Statue of Liberty is owned by the National Park Service.

View more Statue of Liberty Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 305.00'
Focal Plane: Unknown
Active Aid to Navigation: Deactivated (1902)
*Latitude: 40.68900 N
*Longitude: -74.04500 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.