Monday, June 26, 2017

Abraham Elters and the Statue of Liberty

Fireworks celebrating the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. Engraving based on a sketch by Charles Graham. Originally published in the Illustrated London News. Republished in The New York Times on the 125th anniversary of the event.

On September 11, 1886, the S.S. Polynesia sailed into New York harbor after a sixteen day voyage from Hamburg, Germany. On board were roughly 200 passengers, including my great-grandfather, Abraham Elters.  Just eighteen years old, he had traveled over four thousand miles by himself from his home town of Krakow in Austria. (Today Krakow is part of Poland.) Although he had traveled by alone, he wasn't completely on his own in New York. He found a home with his step-mother's brother, Louis Rippe, who had arrived in the city twenty years earlier. Abraham Elters soon found a job, and started saving money. By 1890, the rest of his family was able to join him in New York.

Although I've spent a lot of time learning about Abraham Elters' life in New York, I had never
stopped to consider the details of his actual arrival in the city. Like millions of other immigrants, he arrived in New York by ship. The harbor was undoubtedly crowded and busy with lots of ships and smaller boats plying the waters around the city. He probably marveled at the Statue of Liberty and the skyline of the city that would be his new home. New York was, of course, much smaller than it is today, but with a population of roughly 1.5 million it was the largest city in the United States and one of the largest cities in the world.
My great grandfather, Abraham Elters,
age 26. Eight years after his arrival in
the United States

Recently, however, I found myself reading about the history of the Statue of Liberty, and this led me to think more carefully about what exactly Abraham Elters would have seen sailing into New York harbor. In particular, I noticed that the dedication ceremony for the Statue was held on October 28, 1886, almost seven weeks after my great grandfather arrived in New York. So he would have been among the first immigrants to see Lady Liberty on her pedestal atop Liberty Island, or Bedloe's Island as it was known at the time.

This led me to wondering whether the statue was complete at the time Abraham Elters arrived in New York, or if he would have seen it under construction. I haven't been able to find a precise timeline for the building of the statue, but I did find a The New York Times article describing a sailing race in the harbor a few days earlier, on September 7, which mentions "the headless statue of Liberty." (The race in question was the first match of the 1886 America's Cup.)

In searching (unsuccessfully) for pictures of the statue under construction in New York, I also learned that the statue has not always been green. The Statue of Liberty is made of copper, and it took many years for it to slowly acquire the verdigris that provides its iconic color. So what Abraham Elters saw on his arrival in New York was not the famous image that graces millions of contemporary pictures of New York, but rather a headless statue with a metallic brown sheen.

1908 postcard of the Statue of Liberty. Note
the uncorroded copper color. Source:
Nevertheless, it must have been an impressive sight. The statue's shoulders are roughly 250 feet above the ground of Liberty Island. The height of the torch, when it was completed, is 305 feet, about twenty feet higher than the spire on Trinity Church, then the tallest building in New York. Abraham Elters had certainly never seen a statue of such proportions, and probably had never seen a man-made structure so tall. Hamburg, where he sailed from, had several churches that were taller, but it's impossible to know whether he saw them when he passed through Hamburg en route to New York.

This line of investigation leaves me with a pair of unanswered questions.  First, I wonder how famous the Statue of Liberty was in 1886.  Eventually, of course, it became known around the world, and immigrants arriving in New York would look for it and cheer, knowing that it meant they had arrived in America. But I wonder if Abraham Elters boarded the Polynesia knowing there was a colossal statue being built in New York harbor, or if he only discovered it when he saw it on his arrival.

Second, while it is interesting to speculate about what Abraham Elters saw or thought about the Statue of Liberty, I wonder if he actually saw any of it. Did the Polynesia arrive during daylight hours?  Or did it arrive in the middle of the night?  For all I know, Abraham Elters may have been sound asleep on his arrival in New York harbor and seen none of this.

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