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Lighting Lady Liberty

Illuminating national monument began with Newton native’s spark of ingenuity

Oskaloosa's Musco Lighting recently donated equipment and services to fix the illumination system on the Statue of Liberty that was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Lighting Lady Liberty has had Iowa connections for nearly a century, dating back to William Edgar Richards of Newton.
Oskaloosa's Musco Lighting recently donated equipment and services to fix the illumination system on the Statue of Liberty that was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Lighting Lady Liberty has had Iowa connections for nearly a century, dating back to William Edgar Richards of Newton.

Last month, as Hurricane Sandy roared up the eastern seaboard, dozens of national parks and monuments sustained damage. Hardest hit was a group of 15 parks located in and around the New York City metropolitan area.

Most noticeable among those was the Statue of Liberty, which was darkened by the storm.

Last week, with the generous donation of equipment and services from Musco Lighting of Oskaloosa, the Statue of Liberty was able to shine once again until a full assessment of the extent of the damage to the lighting system is complete and a permanent fix implemented. What few may know is that illuminating Lady Liberty has been an Iowa tradition for nearly a century.

William Edgar Richards was born and raised in Newton but moved to Toledo, Ohio, at the age of 28 to work as an electrical engineer with the Toledo Consolidated Street Car Company. He stayed with the firm, which eventually became known as Toledo Edison Company, for another 40 years and became one of the leading men in his field.

The onset of World War I instilled in Americans a sense of renewed national pride, as well as a renewed interest in the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom. A public effort, spearheaded by the New York World newspaper and by electrical engineer George Williams of the Henry L. Doherty Co., raised nearly $30,000 for a project to provide floodlighting for the statue.

Additional appropriations by Congress provided a pool fund for maintenance on the proposed electrical lighting system. Mere days after the appropriations bill was signed into law, however, the Black Tom munitions explosion caused even more public interest in the Statue of Liberty.

The fundraising campaign soon gained national prominence with money pouring in from across the country, collected by Boy Scouts and girl volunteers wearing “liberty sashes.” In the end, more than 50,000 Americans donated to the cause.

Meanwhile, Richards was becoming nationally known for advances he made in electrical transmission, particularly in the use of underground cables. He led Toledo into the future by installing a 23,000-volt system of underground cables, making it only the second city in the country to have an electrical system like it.

By 1916, his success attracted the attention of those who were working on a plan to light the Statue of Liberty. He soon was asked to tackle the biggest issue with lighting the Statue of Liberty: getting electricity to Bedloe’s Island, known today as Liberty Island.

Putting his expertise to work, Richards suggested running a half mile of cable under upper New York Bay to the island. He soon took a leave of absence from Toledo Edison to oversee the lighting project with less than two months to get the job done.

Ultimately, he advised putting 246 250-watt spotlights in clusters of 15 to 20 at each of the 11 points of the statue’s irregular-star-shaped base. He also wanted to light the torch with a set of flashing lamps that would be powered by a cable run up to the torch.

To create the impression of a “living flame,” he employed the original flame sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, to construct a new flame out of 600 pieces of amber cathedral glass mounted in cutaway sheet bronze. At the time, the statue was not yet a national monument, but was instead used as a lighthouse and navigational beacon for New York Harbor.

Once a fifth-order lighthouse lens was installed inside the new torch, it produced about 20,000 candlepower. 

In the final stretch of the project, with it appearing Richards’ work would be done both on time and on budget, the company contracted to manufacture the underground cable notified him it would take five months to complete the order. However, if they put all other orders on hold, they could get the job done in 10 days.

Richards personally appealed to Congress, the White House and to the New York City media, as well as the electrical industry across the United States to apply pressure on the company. Giving in to the pressure, the company supplied the cable in four days, allowing the project to be completed two days ahead of schedule.

On Dec. 2, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson pushed a radio-control button from the presidential yacht Mayflower stationed with an Atlantic Fleet task force in New York Harbor, initiating the lighting process. For the first time in her 30 years, Lady Liberty was bathed in light.

The New York World recorded the event for history:

“Transformed suddenly from a black and shapeless bulk against a rapidly darkening sky into a glorious goddess bathed in golden light, the Statue of Liberty ... was illuminated in a manner befitting its prominence, its position and the idea it symbolizes ... From now on it is the plan to keep Liberty alight between dusk and dawn, always.”

The City of New York rewarded Richards with a gold medal for his efforts. He then returned to Toledo Edison, where he worked until his untimely death on Aug. 12, 1931, as he dictated a message to his office stenographer.

Over the years, there have been refurbishments and upgrades to the Statue of Liberty’s lighting system, but it continues to be based on the original plans drawn up by Newton’s own William E. Richards. Some of those principles were even used by Musco engineers who put together the temporary lighting system now in place.

“During our visit to the Statue of Liberty on Monday, Superintendent David Luchsinger and National Park Service staff provided tremendous information and assistance to us that enabled our team to move this project forward so quickly,” Musco Lighting president Joe Crookham said.

Working in cooperation with the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service, Musco developed a system of LED light fixtures powered by small generators and mounted on moveable structures that can be easily relocated as needed during the restoration work. The state-of-the-art LED lighting system will provide a nearly 70 percent energy savings.

“For 125 years the Statue of Liberty has been one of the world’s most enduring symbols of our nation and this great city,” National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said. “While we work to do everything necessary to re-open the dtatue and every other national park damaged by the hurricane, we are grateful to Musco and the National Park Foundation for turning the lights on Lady Liberty, another step forward in the recovery of this region.”

Those sentiments were echoed by National Park Foundation president and CEO Neil Mulholland. He said the support and generosity of private citizens and organizations have helped the national parks when they have needed it most.

“Through the years, Musco Lighting has demonstrated a continuous commitment to our country’s symbolic and special places,” he added. “In a time of wide-spread rebuilding, their work to relight the Statue of Liberty will restore one of our nation’s most iconic monuments to its place of prominence.”

Bob Eschliman can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 423 or via email at

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