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January 5, 2021

Lady Liberty’s Torch: How to See It and Why It Matters

Statue of Liberty up close (1)

The Statue of Liberty is one of New York’s most impressive monuments. Not just for her symbolism but for how accomplished the structure was for the time period. While much of that original statue still stands, the torch you see in Lady Liberty’s right hand is much newer than the rest of her. You might think it’s just another piece of her wardrobe, but the Statue of Liberty’s torch is one of her most significant and symbolic elements. This post will tell you exactly why the torch is so important and how you can see both the original and current torch up close!

History of the torch

Statue of Liberty Torch

The original torch of Lady Liberty was held by her hand until 1984. It was replaced in order to bring in something newer and more efficient and to better represent the wishes of the statue’s designer. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi designed the torch’s flame to be a mass of solid copper, covered in a thin layer of gold leaf. The torch’s balcony was meant to have a series of floodlights to illuminate it. However, this request was overruled due to the fear of passerby pilots being blinded.

Bartholdi decided to cut portholes in the flame and placed the lights inside. Unfortunately, these light bulbs weren’t nearly strong enough and the statue failed to be visible after dark.

In 1887, a year after opening, the Lighthouse Board took over the statue’s operations.  They claimed that sailors would be able to see the statue miles out at sea and decided to utilize her as a lighthouse, promising to install better equipment. This proved to be unsuccessful and too costly. Finally, President Roosevelt decided to transfer control to the War Department.

Statue of Liberty Original Torch

Credit: Peter Arnott / CC BY-SA 3.0

Instead of copper and gold leaf, it was decided that the flame would be made up of multiple panes of glass and inside a series of bright light bulbs that would shine out from within. Gutzon Borglum, designer of Mount Rushmore, was the sculptor in charge of the new design.

By the 1980s, it was decided to replace the original torch with an exact replica of Bartholdi’s original design. In 1986, the current torch was installed, which has a flame covered in 24-karat gold. You can find the original torch on display in the Statue of Liberty Museum.

Tour Guide Tip: Today, the statue is visible at night due to a series of floodlights placed around Liberty Island and the balcony of the torch. These weren’t installed until the 1950s!

Visiting the torch and its eventual closure

Statue of Liberty Torch Cam

Believe it or not, people used to be allowed all the way up to the torch of the statue. Only 12 people at a time could make the climb, exiting to the balcony using a small door underneath the flame. Because the arm is so narrow, there was only room for a single ladder, totaling 40 feet long. Imagine trying to visit the torch and not being able to use stairs!

In 1916, a number of events led to the closure of the torch’s observation platform. On July 30, the “Black Tom” explosion occurred in New York harbor. A group of German agents set out to destroy a collection of United States military goods that were meant to be supplied to the Allies in World War I. The explosion reached as far as Liberty Island and caused some minor damage to the statue’s exterior.

On top of the damage from the explosion, the right arm’s structure was deteriorating from years of people climbing up and down. Truthfully, it was not meant to sustain that much weight and there were many reports that guests felt it shaking from within. For safety reasons, it was decided to not allow any more guests to the top.

Nowadays, the only people allowed up are National Park Service staff members. We call them the “Keepers of the Flame”. They’re responsible for maintaining the floodlights on the balcony. But you can still see the view from the torch live every day with Torch Cam. Check it out to see what it would be like to visit the torch today.

Tour Guide Tip: You can also see images of the statue’s torch appear on the current ten dollar bill, just to the left of Hamilton’s face.

Symbolism of the torch

Statue of Liberty

Lady Liberty’s torch is a symbol of enlightenment. It lights the way to freedom and down the path of liberty. The official title of the Statue of Liberty is actually “Liberty Enlightening the World”- directly coinciding with the light from her torch.

The image of a woman holding a torch was influenced by one of the ancient wonders of the world. Bartholdi took inspiration from The Colossus of Rhodes, a massive statue erected in the city of Rhodes to honor the sun-god Helios. Much like this ancient work of art, Bartholdi wanted his statue to have a peaceful appearance. For him, the torch also represented progress.

Bringing the torch to life

Hand and torch of statue of liberty

Overall, the biggest challenge in building the Statue of Liberty was garnering enough financial support. In order to get Americans excited about their coming monument, the right hand and torch were completed early. In 1876, it was shipped to the United States to be displayed in both Philadelphia and New York City.

In Philadelphia, this fragment of the statue was displayed at the Centennial Exposition. Here in New York, it stood in Madison Square Park from 1876 to 1882. Visitors could climb up to the balcony of the torch.

While many enjoyed the experience, multiple people in the city complained about its presence. Many citizens were reminded of the economic problems that were taxing the city quite heavily at the time. While others complained that their children were experiencing nightmares from its creepy appearance.

Certainly not the best way to introduce the Statue of Liberty to New York!

Taking the best photo of the torch

Statue_of_Liberty_National_Monument_Crown

Credit: National Parks Service / CC BY-SA 3.0

If you want a good photo of the torch close-up, it’s best to take the picture from the ferry boat either on your way to or back from Liberty Island. It might seem harder because the boat is moving, but it’s the easiest way to get a view of the torch from straight on.

Since it’s the tallest point of the statue, trying to take the picture from down below on Liberty Island is a bit trickier. You most likely won’t get as many details as your angle will be much lower. If the boat is too tricky or too crowded, it’s best to stand as far back from the statue as possible. Near the museum, for example. This will give you the best angle and vantage point.

Also, be sure to use a phone or camera lens with good zooming capabilities. You’ll have to zoom in pretty close to catch all the detail from so far away.

Still shining bright over 100 years later

Original torch of the statue of liberty

Credit: Ad Meskens / CC BY-SA 3.0

Nothing beats seeing the Statue of Liberty for the very first time. That swell of emotion and pride is only escalated when you can see her original torch. It reminds you of how far the statue has come and just how much she means to the people of New York City. Whether you’re seeing the original up close or staring up at the newer replica, the bright flame of the torch will inspire and dazzle you.