The Lady and the Tower

The Entwined Histories of the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty


“No true American patriot can countenance any such expenditure for bronze females in the present state of finances, and hence, unless the Frenchmen change their mind and pay for this “gift” themselves, we shall have to do without it.”

Editorial in the New York Times in opposition to plans for the installation of the Statue of Liberty, September 1876

“Is the city of Paris to permit itself to be deformed by monstrosities, by the mercantile dreams of a maker of machinery; to be disfigured forever and to be dishonored? For the Eiffel Tower, which even the United States would not countenance, is surely going to dishonor France.”

“Protest Against the Tower of Monsieur Eiffel,” published in Le Temps, February 1886

HER COPPER-CLAD skirts had begun to rise above the slate roofs of the city two years before, and by now all of the colossal woman and the 30-foot torch she held in her hand towered above the beguiling Paris of the Belle Époque. You could readily see her — proud, inscrutable, lifting the torch high as if to help illumine the City of Light — from the Arc de Triomphe just four blocks away, from the heights of Montmartre in the northeast and even from the broad green lawn of the Champs de Mars across the Seine in the south, at a site on which the creators of the huge statue lately had begun to imagine that a latticework tower seven times her size would rise one day.

But for the moment, the lady — whose copper façade, exposed to Paris’s moist riverine air, already had begun to take on a distinct green patina — joined the domes of the Sacré-Cour and Invalides and the spire of Notre-Dame as the city’s tallest structures. For the moment, she remained a proud if perhaps unlikely Parisian, yet both her nationality and her place of residence were about to change. On the evening of May 21, 1884, the Franco-American Union — the confederation of politicians, businessmen, and philanthropists who had struggled for years to reach this culminating and very grand day — hosted a formal dinner in celebration both of the statue’s completion and the pending transfer of its ownership to the people of the United States. The opulent feast’s guest of honor, of course, was Alsatian sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who — two decades before — first had imagined creating a gigantic, lamp-bearing woman who would keep watch in Egypt rather than America. In attendance as well were two of the most world-renowned Frenchmen of the era, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, a much-journeyed diplomat and the storied builder of the Suez Canal, as well as the esteemed bridge and building designer Gustave Eiffel, who recently also had engineered the wrought-iron framework that allowed the 100-ton sculpture of the lady to rise high above the rue de Chazelles.

It seems unlikely that Eiffel — utterly self-possessed but an essentially private man, one whose modest bearing belied a quick and supple mind — offered anything by way of a formal comment following a final course of sorbet au Kirsch and cigarettes, but it is certain that both Bartholdi and Lesseps did, the former finding it irresistible not to remind the sixty gentlemen in white tie in attendance that although, admittedly, it had taken them some time, together they had rather deliciously proved wrong legions of skeptics in both France and America. “For a long time,” intoned the man whose piercing eyes and full dark beard helped draw attention away from the weak chin about which he was deeply self-conscious, “malicious and critical spirits considered our work an ‘elephant,’ as they say in the United States — one of those burdens you don’t know how to get rid of.”

For a long time, people in France had found it difficult to understand precisely why France should give the gift of a metal lady to the new country across the ocean and harder still to comprehend why its citizens should pay for its ample cost. And Americans in turn had found it almost impossible to muster continuing interest in the curious, if substantial gift that had been in a seemingly endless state of being given for so many years by now. But at last, the lanky Bartholdi wanted to remind his colleagues, the extraordinary statue that honored America’s commitment to liberty and newly symbolized the vital friendship between the two nations would rise in New York’s harbor as proof that great and complex projects could be accomplished. And he wanted the men who by now had begun to enjoy their Madeira and cigars — since neither wives or paramours had been invited to the august event — to remember as well how essential to the project’s success the passionate involvement of Count de Lesseps had been, a man whom Bartholdi praised as both “an exceptionally well-endowed and beneficent fairy” and “the great heart and mind of France.”

In the moments following that fulsome introduction, Lesseps, a still-athletic if white-maned 78-year old, rose to accept the accolades and congratulate the statue’s sculptor in turn and briefly echo his sentiments about the role the copper lady would play far into the future, one of reminding people everywhere — not solely in France and the United States — of how precious freedom was and how precarious its cause often could be. Then Lessep’s subject quickly shifted to his true obsession of the moment — to his fierce determination to complete construction of a second great canal before his days were done, this time one that would cut across the narrow neck of Panama and once more make the world a dramatically smaller place, just as the opening of the Suez Canal had done fifteen years before.

His audience soon was utterly absorbed by the count’s description of the arduous task of cutting a broad canal through Panama’s rough and densely tropical terrain, and no one in attendance — many of whom had loosened a waistcoat button or two by now — seemed concerned that Monsieur Bartholdi’s statue, officially titled Liberty Enlightening the World, was being feted with talk of dredging machines and malaria, torrential rainstorms and the Americans’ obviously wrongheaded determination to build an Atlantic- and Pacific-linking canal across Nicaragua instead. Lesseps, large and leonine, was a man of both courage and complex vision — and his persuasive skills were second to none, it was said — and few among the dinner guests required assistance in understanding that the statue was a piece of careful diplomacy as readily as it was a vast collection of pig iron and copper sheathing, and that its gift to the United States curiously might serve the cause of the Panama Canal as readily as it would the glory of France and the bonds of international amity.

If people in the United States believed they were deeply indebted to France for the statue, perhaps they might be inclined to accept as a given as well the truth that great entrepreneurial and engineering projects — whether canals or astonishing statues or the very high tower that the brilliant Monsieur Eiffel and his assistants had begun to imagine as the centerpiece for the coming centenary celebration of France’s revolution — really ought to be left to the French themselves, clearly the best builders in the world. Perhaps Bartholdi’s lady and Eiffel’s tower, monuments in metal, might play important adjunct roles in ensuring that France would command a vital strategic link between North and South America — and between the two vast oceans — for centuries to come.

Ferdinand de Lesseps

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, Gustave Eiffel, and Ferdinand de Lesseps first had collectively encountered each other in Egypt in 1869 and it was the industrial marvel of the recently opened Suez Canal that began their decades of association. The count was eager to show this newest wonder of the world — and his personal triumph — to people from home, of course, and Eiffel, then a 37-year old engineer who was hungry to make a mark for himself, and who had come to Egypt to deliver a consignment of locomotives on behalf of France’s General Railway Equipment Company, was fascinated to observe how steam shovels and dredgers had gouged a hundred-mile river across the Isthmus of Suez in only a decade. Bartholdi, two years Eiffel’s junior, had come to Egypt as Lesseps’s personal guest. Two years before, the count had become captivated by the young sculptor’s bold proposal to build a monumental lighthouse at the Port Said entrance to the canal in the form of a robed woman holding aloft a torch. Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia the statue would have been called, but despite Lessep’s enthusiastic support for the project, it had collapsed when the Egyptian government failed to allocate the necessary funds to construct it. Yet although that enterprise had been thwarted — or perhaps, said cynics, simply had been transformed into another lady lighting another place — you can imagine the rich pleasure the three builders of things large and lofty must have taken as they stood on the deck of Empress Eugénie’s royal yacht as members of the official French contingent celebrating the linking of the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, each of the three the sort of men who could not help but dream great dreams and work tirelessly toward their realization, each man the kind for whom it seemed perfectly reasonable that a way could be found for huge ships to sail through the desert sand.

In the spring of 1884, however, a mountain of work remained to be done on many fronts before any of the three briefly could rest on their laurels. Bartholdi’s statue still was not guaranteed a suitable pedestal at the site on Bedloe’s island in New York harbor that he long ago had selected, then finally had secured, and it wasn’t unthinkable that the statue simply would be dismantled and packed away if the Paris burghers grew tired of it blocking a street. The tower that in five years’ time would bear Eiffel’s name and climb high into heaven and astonish the world still was nothing more than a pencil sketch on brown paper executed by Maurice Koechlin, a young draftsman in Eiffel’s firm. And at the moment, Lesseps’s Universal Interoceanic Panama Canal Company was in desperate need of a quick infusion of cash.

In two years of work under the harshest kinds of conditions, cutting through the rocky Panamanian divide called the Culebra had proven to be a gargantuan and very expensive task, and Lesseps now hoped French citizens would rush to purchase the new issue of stock his company recently had offered and thereby keep his steam shovels digging. He had offered the Paris press a copy of his dinner remarks in the hours before the feast, in fact, in the hope that its publication would further spur the public’s interest in the venture and the proffering of its investment francs. But the months ahead would prove to be dramatically difficult ones.

Two more confounding years would pass before Bartholdi’s statue at last stood high on a granite pedestal and began to keep watch over New York’s harbor, welcoming a steady stream of immigrants to America’s shores. In three more years, Lesseps would turn to Eiffel to salvage the increasingly disaster-plagued Panama Canal project, and Eiffel — to his deep regret — would agree to come to its rescue at precisely the same time his namesake tower was rising, and being met by public ridicule, beside the Seine.

In time, the statue that no one really wanted would become a powerful and enduring symbol to generations of immigrants of what made the United States unique among all nations, symbol of a country that believed in individual freedom and opportunity more than it believed in anything else. In relatively little time, the tower that had been dubbed “a truly tragic lamppost, a high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders,” would become not only a monument to the glories of industry but also the foremost visual representation of the city of Paris and all of France as well, an elegant spire wrought out of iron that seemed, quite wonderfully, to link earth to sky and material to imagination. In time, both Lesseps and Eiffel would be charged with crimes in connection with their dealings in Panama, and although both would be exonerated to some degree, the stains on their reputations would remain. America ultimately would be forced to abandon its plans for a canal in Nicaragua in favor of completing the failed French project in Panama, and international relations would be altered forevermore with France’s retreat from a position of prominence in the New World.

The Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, two odd and utterly non-utilitarian structures, have, nonetheless, come to matter enormously in the collective consciousness of the people of the two countries in which they stand, and their senses of themselves and their perceived missions in the world. The two structures were exceedingly complicated to build and are now impossible to imagine the world without, both created at a time when the advent of wondrous machines and the remarkable things that could be made with them seemed to make gods of great builders and to portend that the future would be a very bright place.

At the time the story begins, Americans and the French had pledged themselves to an inviolate friendship, one that had emerged out of bloodshed of their separate eighteenth-century revolutions. Largely because of those shared revolutionary roots, the citizens of both countries viewed themselves as being essentially modern and unrestrained by the past, and they shared as well an enduring — if often denied — belief in their pre-eminence over other nations. Yet the people of France and the United States were dissimilar in striking ways as well. While the French placed great stock in collective action, national glory, and the importance of culture, the new Americans more highly valued self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and individual comfort. The French prized philosophical inquiry while Americans vaunted their practicality, and if the French appreciated leisure, cuisine, artistic endeavor and intellectualism, Americans in turn cherished hard work, simple food, relaxed manners and the equalizing role played by commonplace standards — something the French saw as cultural mediocrity.

Both countries shared complex yet vital relationships with Great Britain — the French linked to the great colonial power by geographical proximity, the Americans by the kinship of language. They shared too an enduring uncertainty about whether, like Britain, they ought to play broad and expansive roles in the world at large, and they also shared the memory of recent and terrible war. The United States had remained united, but only at huge cost, in 1865 at the close of a bitter and deeply scarring civil war, one that twenty years later still left little taste in Americans’ mouths for military adventuring in other parts of the world. In 1871, France had suffered a humiliating defeat in its ill-advised war against Prussia, and had been forced to surrender to the Prussians its eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, a loss that continued to gall the French fifteen years after the fact, but also cautiously remind them that in the future they ought to press forward to war only when war was utterly unavoidable.

In the long aftermath of those separate conflicts, both the United States and France finally had rebounded economically and with renewed commitment to the ideals of their revolutions, and it was industry much more than politics that instilled in the people of both countries a compelling vision of the coming twentieth century. By the middle 1880s, the industrial might of both nations rivaled — and in many ways surpassed — that of the British, and there appeared no limit to the glories that coal and steam and iron could contrive. Cities like Paris, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, Marseilles, Buffalo, and Lyon were alive with the stink and rattle and clang of immense optimism, and the pall of smoke that draped each city seemed to blithely and quite happily obscure the past. To observers in other nations of the world, the peoples of France and the United States appeared to be making great leaps forward at often-astonishing speed, and within the two nations themselves a sense of destiny began to build, then to become contagious.

It was out of the belief that God observably blessed the bold and the industrious that these two great shrines to the age, its meaning, and its values were conceived and created — the Statue of Liberty a memorial to the idea that kings and despots never again could shackle the dreams and passions of free peoples, the Eiffel Tower a latticework temple to what creative minds had discovered and achieved by now and everything that remained possible to them far into the future. In the months following the May 1884 banquet that marked the completion of the enormous statue — her high-held arm 45-feet long, her aquiline nose nearly as tall as a man — many of the august group who had celebrated that evening began to plan in earnest a grand international exposition in Paris in the summer of 1889 that would, according to the fair’s general manager Georges Berger, show our sons what their fathers have accomplished in the space of a century through progress in knowledge, love of work, and respect for liberty. We will give them a view from the summit of the steep slope that has been climbed since the Dark Ages. And if one day they should again descend to some valley of error and misery, they will remember what we did and they will remind their children of it, and future generations will thereby be more determined than ever to climb still higher than we have.

What men like Berger, Bartholdi, Eiffel, and Lesseps could not know, of course, was that the hundred years that followed the fair, the anchoring of the lady in the new land, the stunning erection of the tower, and the completion of the canal that linked the oceans would be a century filled with unimaginable error and misery. What they could not know was that France and America would remain vigorously linked, yet also separated by jealousies, suspicions, and competing creeds. Yet their common belief in the vital consequence and enduring importance of building shrines to the best human accomplishments and the loftiest human ideals would prove throughout that same century to have been both bold and wise. This is the story of two monuments that the people of the United States and France did not need but have come to deeply depend on, of two symbols whose multiple meanings and symbolic significance have grown over time as if they too were hammered out of cast iron and copper, the story of a time — not utterly unlike our own — when the bold and audacious construction of a lady and a tower changed two nations, the nature of their friendship, and the rest of the world forever.

IN THE SUMMER of 1865, French law professor and politician Édouard-René Lefebvre de Laboulaye hosted a private dinner for a small group of friends who, like him, were ardent supporters of the return to republican rule in France as well as the nearly century-old republican government in the United States that recently had survived a terrible civil war. Among those in attendance at Laboulaye’s home on a hot August evening and who heard him suggest that France surely should give the United States a gift of some sort commemorating the common republican bond between the two countries — as well as celebrating the end of the war and the survival of the American union — was Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, a young sculptor from the eastern province of Alsace who passionately wanted to make a career for himself as the creator of public monuments on a scale far greater than ever had been attempted before. But nothing immediately came of Laboulaye’s suggestion, and the idea simply might have died had not Bartholdi determined six years later, following his service in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, that he should visit America, gauge interest there in the erecting of a monument to liberty, and perhaps even secure a site.

When the steamship Pereire on which Bartholdi was traveling entered New York harbor on June 21, 1871, he was immediately convinced that the harbor itself was the ideal location for a monument, and he wrote enthusiastically to Laboulaye with the news: “At the view of the harbor of New York, a definite plan was first clear to my eyes . . . In this very place shall be raised the Statue of Liberty, grand as the idea which it embodies, radiant upon the two worlds.” Bartholdi enclosed a sketch with his letter, one envisioning a gigantic robed woman holding a torch high in her hand, her head crowned by a ring of individual rays that emanated liberty itself perhaps. The sketch was remarkably reminiscent of the design Bartholdi had created four years before for a lighthouse at the entrance to the Suez Canal, yet he believed that this at last was the project that actually would lead to such a lady’s construction.

The Romans often had depicted liberty as a woman, he knew; a female figure symbolizing truth was common among French freemasons, and, of course, in 1830 French painter Eugène Delacroix had depicted liberty as the mythic “Marianne,” a bare-breasted and brave young woman carrying the tricolor flag in one hand and a musket in the other. For his part, Laboulaye had hoped for a monument that somehow more concretely expressed the bond between France and the United States, yet he remained supportive in his communications with the sculptor, in largest part because as long as French citizens remained burdened with the heavy taxes owed Prussia in the aftermath of the war, he felt certain the time was not right to begin a campaign seeking their contributions for a gift to the United States.

It was 1875 before Laboulaye, whose liberal republicans by now had won control of the French parliament, formed what he named the Franco-American Union, comprised of the current French and American ambassadors to their respective countries, elected officials, and a number of prominent and wealthy individuals who could give the union a kind of immediate cachet, as well as, Laboulaye hoped, a substantial share of the 240,000 francs Bartholdi estimated the statue would cost. In its initial appeal to the public at large, the union requested contributions of any size from every corner of France in order to complete the statue and present it to the United States the following year, in time for the centennial celebration of American independence, a goal which was immediately unrealistic, and which appeared utterly unreachable soon thereafter when repeated fund-raising events fell flat on their faces.

In America, where Laboulaye hoped a similar group would form to raise funds for the massive pedestal the statue would require, progress was slower still, and several prominent American newspapers expressed suspicions of French motives as well as outright opposition to any U.S. government involvement. When Bartholdi ultimately exhibited Lady Liberty’s full-scale hand and her torch at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia — as part of a several-pronged effort to muster enthusiasm that certainly wasn’t building in New York — the New York Times, which earlier had railed against Bartholdi and the project, now decried Philadelphia’s act of “piracy,” and urged New Yorkers to do everything they could to see the statue realized. When the hand and torch were moved to Manhattan at the close of the centennial exposition and placed in Madison Square Park — where they remained for six long years — the newspaper once more turned critical, suspecting that other pieces of the lady might eventually appear in other parks but that Bartholdi’s ultimate plan surely was to swindle honest Americans.

In February 1877, both U.S. houses of Congress unanimously approved a resolution granting the right for the statue to be placed on Bedloe’s Island, near the New Jersey shore, formerly the site of an army installation. But the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty, the group of private U.S. citizens attempting to raise money for its huge pedestal, was having no better luck than were their French counterparts, and it began to appear that the statue likely never would be funded. Then, in an act of desperation in France, the Franco-American Union persuaded the government to sanction a special lottery, and in July 1880, the union announced that it successfully had raised more than 600,000 francs, then formally notified the American committee and the U.S. government that Bartholdi and his assistants would begin constructing the statue immediately, as well as pleading between the lines for stepped-up efforts on the other side of the Atlantic to get the pedestal paid for and built so the lady would have a place to stand when she arrived.

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi

Over the course of the next four years, the challenge for Bartholdi became the actual construction of the copper lady, something he always had believed was possible, but to which he had devoted only minimal attention until now. Soft and malleable copper, it was clear, was the right material for the statue’s skin, but its weight would be enormous. Feeling sudden and dramatic pressure to make good on his promises, the sculptor rather belatedly sought expertise in the complexities of load-bearing, wind resistance, tensile strength, and the best design of its interior framework from his acquaintance Gustave Eiffel, whose wrought-iron bridges throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia as well as the recently completed Bon Marché department store near Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens had brought him huge renown. Eiffel, then 48, was a master at innovation, and he was immediately intrigued by Bartholdi’s most-unusual project.

Of greatest concern to Eiffel was the fact that Lady Liberty would be dramatically buffeted by winds; she would need to be very flexible as well as able to withstand summer expansion from heat, and the contraction caused by the winter’s bitter cold. Iron was the logical material for the inner framework, but if iron and copper came into direct contact, the galvanic action of the two metals would result in the statue’s collapse in only a few years. Working closely together with Bartholdi to ensure that the interior framework would precisely fit the statue’s outer copper skin, Eiffel and his team designed and then built a central pylon comprised of four giant girders, each nearly a hundred feet high, interconnected by a latticework of bracing and struts. For the statue’s upraised arm, a second forty-foot structure had to built, this one at a complex angle that required extensive counterbalancing on the vertical pylon. Reaching out from the two pylons were a total of 1,830 light iron ribs that linked the copper sheeting to the frame by means of a series of simple copper “saddles,” which wrapped around the iron ribs before being riveted to each exterior copper plate, the iron insulated from the copper with both asbestos and shellac. It was a design that allowed the iron ribs to act like springs, ensuring that the copper lady could flex with the dictates of weather — that she could both stretch and breathe — and that the girders themselves carried virtually all of the statue’s weight.

In order to precisely shape each of the statue’s 350 copper sheets, Bartholdi initially worked from a four-foot high clay model, which he then refined in a series of larger plaster models, culminating with a final form that was fully one-quarter the finished statue’s size. From the largest plaster model, workers built wooden lattice molds against which the soft copper could be hammered into shape, but before any hammering was done, incredibly precise measuring was required to ensure that — at four times the model’s size — every sheet perfectly fit its neighbors. Each section of the statue had fifteen hundred reference points, and each reference point required six separate measurements, meaning that each section received nine thousand measurements before workers were sure that the lattice molds were properly shaped and ready to receive the sheets.

In October 1881 — on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown, in which French and American revolutionary forces defeated the British in the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War — U.S. ambassador to France Levi P. Morton drove the ceremonial first rivet for the final assembly of the statue, which took place in the wide cobblestone street outside Bartholdi’s warehouse and workshop near the Arc de Triomphe, and the statue at last began to rise, sixteen years after it first had been imagined by Édouard-René Lefebvre de Laboulaye, who would not live to see its completion. Nearly three years would pass before the lady would stand tall — and entirely complete — in Paris’s rue de Chazelles, the surrounding rooftops reaching only to her knees. On July 4, 1884, French and American officials climbed the spiral staircase that wrapped around Eiffel’s framework and in the sunlight at the lady’s crown signed documents officially transferring her ownership to the United States — which was a serious problem, because still the United States had no place to put her.

By the summer of 1884, the pedestal on Bedloe’s Island had been designed — by French-trained architect Richard Morris Hunt — and excavation of its foundation was underway, but the American committee charged with funding the pedestal remained woefully short of its $250,000 goal. Americans just weren’t interested in the statue, it seemed, and even many wealthy New Yorkers who were potential benefactors declined to come to the project’s rescue and make the completion of the project a cause célèbre; industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie — an immigrant who might have been stirred by the lofty rhetoric of the statue’s advocates — agreed to contribute, rather reluctantly, only five hundred dollars. But another immigrant at last came to the rescue.

Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-born newspaperman whose St. Louis Post-Dispatch had become one of the country’s most respected papers, recently had purchased the New York World from financier Jay Gould, and had transformed it into a defender of the common man. Pulitzer loved a good editorial fight and to champion controversial causes as well, and when work on Bedloe’s Island ceased for lack of funds in March 1885, Pulitzer could not control his anger.

It would be an irrevocable disgrace to New York City and the American republic to have France send us this splendid gift without our having provided even so much as a landing place for it. There is but one thing that can be done. We must raise the money. The World is the people’s paper and it now appeals to the people to come forward and raise the money. Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money.

Pulitzer vowed to print in the World the name of every individual who gave so much as a nickel to the cause, and in only five months, the newspaper raised the remaining $100,000 needed for the pedestal from 120,000 individual contributors. If the members of the committee who had needed seven years to raise a like amount were more than a little embarrassed, they also were grateful, because for the first time in twenty years, there appeared to be no impediment now to the statue’s placement on the island that Bartholdi long ago had hoped would be its home. And rather magically, there was something in Pulitzer’s appeal that at last ignited true American interest in the statue as well; he had shunned high-minded rhetoric about the meaning of the statue in favor of pleading for the little guy to show up the wealthy elite, and, in the process, somehow the statue began to seem to belong to the people — the common people of France and the United States — although it certainly hadn’t until now.

Its home ready for it at last, the statue was carefully dismantled on the rue de Chazelles and placed, piece by piece, into 214 wooden crates, which were loaded aboard the French frigate Isère. On June 19, 1886, two hundred thousand people watched the odd cargo arrive in New York harbor, and a massive parade up Broadway marked the occasion. Fifty-six thousand additional dollars ultimately had to be wrested from the U.S. treasury in order to pay for the reconstruction of the statue and the grand dedication ceremony that was scheduled for October 28. Bartholdi himself pulled an enormous French flag away from the face of the statue on that dreary, rain-soaked autumn day, and the gathered dignitaries — all men — cheered the unveiling of the gigantic lady whose name was Liberty.

Women had been barred from the island for the occasion because, ostensibly, it was too dangerous for them, but a ship containing disgusted members of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association cruised the harbor nearby, both as a way of attempting to participate in the proceedings and in protest. It would be fully 34 years before women were granted the right to vote in the United States, and 59 years would pass before women — symbols of liberty — finally could vote in France.

AS THE STATUE of Liberty rose to an astonishing height of 152 feet in Paris’s rue de Chazelles in the spring of 1884, people of every sort — but builders in particular — had begun to look skyward with longing. Surely in the miraculous modern era people could climb even farther into the sky than did Bartholdi’s copper lady. Marvelous inventions seemed to be dramatically changing the world every day: seven years before, an American had invented the telephone; then a Frenchman had invented the phonograph before an American somehow invented it as well, the same fellow who next came up with the incandescent electric lamp. Three years earlier, a Frenchman developed an automobile powered by steam; then an American invented a camera that made it easy for ordinary citizens to take photographs; first New York and now Paris were lit by electric street lamps, and a French physician recently had announced development of a successful vaccination against rabies. There seemed to be no end to what scientific achievement could make possible, and it wasn’t surprising therefore that people in Europe and the United States had begun to believe a structure could climb 300 meters into the heavens.

A decade before, engineers in America had hoped to build a 1,000-foot (304.8 meters) tower for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, but both financial and structural concerns had kept their plan grounded; then in 1881, a French engineer returned from a trip to the United States with plans to build a masonry “sun tower” 300 meters high on whose summit would be mounted a floodlight capable, he claimed, of turning nighttime Paris into day.

But it wasn’t until 1884 that Émile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, young engineers in Gustave Eiffel’s world-renowned firm, first sketched a high tower that seemed to have some likelihood of actually being constructed. Their plan envisioned a single massive pylon comprised of four truss girders splayed out at their base and joined at the summit, linked by crossbeams at regular intervals, a structure of incredible stability — but one that was a little lackluster, believed Stephen Sauvestre, an architect in the company. To their design he added masonry feet for the tower, massive ornamental arches that linked the girders at the first level above the base and seemed to invite passage underneath, and a glass bulb at the summit that lent it a lighthouse’s kind of completion. It was Sauvestre’s amended design that first caught Eiffel’s true attention and sparked his interest in the tower’s possibilities. In September 1884, he took out a patent on the design in association with his employees, then promptly bought exclusive rights to the design from them.

It was a measure of Eiffel’s influence in Paris that when a competition to build a centerpiece tower for the planned 1889 Exposition Universelle that would celebrate the centenary of the French revolution was announced on May 1, 1886 — just as Eiffel’s framework for the Statue of Liberty was being permanently erected on Bedloe’s Island in New York — that the competition guidelines just happened to specify a wrought-iron tower dramatically like the one Eiffel already had patented. Nor was it surprising when Eiffel’s design was selected the winner from among the competition’s 107 entries. Ever a shrewd businessman as well as an engineer, in January of the following year Eiffel signed a contract between himself, the national government, and the city of Paris, granting him a 20-year concession on income the tower would generate and 1.5 million francs in construction costs — only about a quarter of what the tower would require, but making it possible to begin construction immediately in order to meet the deadline of the exhibition’s opening in little more than two years.

A team of forty engineers and designers in Eiffel’s suburban Paris factory immediately set to work on the 3,600 workshop drawings that would be required in order to manufacture the tower’s 18,000 individual elements, then 150 “terra firma” men set to work machining, cutting, and drilling each cast-iron piece to an accuracy of a tenth of a millimeter before they were preassembled to a size that the horse-carts hauling them across the city to the Champs de Mars would allow. At the construction site, a team of 250 men were on constant show to the legion of city dwellers who were fascinated by the tower’s progress — slow at first as massive foundation holes for each tower’s four piers had to be dug down below the bed of the nearby Seine before the tower itself could begin to rise — then far quicker as teams began to assemble the myriad pieces of iron that comprised each pier.

Although the forthcoming exposition and its focal tower already had been heavily publicized, of course, it wasn’t until the four latticework piers began their ascent that cries of opposition to the project began to be widely heard, and it was the city’s artistic and intellectual elite who were most exercised about the horror — and the shame — the tower would bring to belle Paris. In a joint statement published in Les Temps, a group of forty writers, artists, musicians, and architects voiced their collective outrage that the nation of France was allowing to be built a ghastly contrivance that even commercial and crass America would not sanction — that was how horrible the prospect of the tower was — and further railing against “the construction of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower in the middle of our capital, which public malice, often a sign of commonsense and a spirit of justice, has already baptized the Tower of Babel.” Other pamphleteers dubbed it a “truly tragic lamppost;” an “iron mast with solid rigging, unfinished, confused, deformed;” “this high, thin pyramid of iron ladders, a disgraceful and giant skeleton;” even “this hideous, gridded pylon, this infundibular grating.”

Eiffel was significantly wounded by the criticisms, in part because they pricked at his belief that everything he built was inherently good, but also because he genuinely found the tower graceful, even beautiful, and he responded to his critics by pointing out that “there is in the colossal an attraction, a special charm, to which the ordinary theories of art can hardly be applied.” In other words, the tower’s size alone lent it a certain majesty, and whatever the attitudes toward it were, the tower continued to rise at an astonishing pace.

A 30-meter high wooden scaffolding supported the rising piers until they were joined by the first platform, where four restaurants, a post office, and a promenade were planned, then new scaffolding supported the climb to the second platform, where the newspaper Le Figaro planned to publish a special daily edition during the months of the exposition. Steam cranes that climbed the same rails that later would be used for the tower’s elevators hoisted each iron element into place, where a team of four men waited to secure it: a “mate” would heat each rivet in a small forge, then toss it to a “stake holder” who drove it into two aligned and predrilled holes; the “riveter” struck the head of the rivet to temporarily secure it once it was seated before a “hammer man” permanently flattened it with a maul. Two-and-a-half million rivets in total bound the tower together by the time it was topped out in early January 1889, only twenty-one months after its erection began.

But now Eiffel and his associates encountered their first real crisis — the apparent likelihood that elevators would not be ready in time to lift the exposition’s visitors high into the air, which was the tower’s purpose, after all. Vertical, hydraulic-driven elevators had been in use for some time, but never to climb a structure as high and to carry as many passengers as Eiffel’s tower would necessitate. Further complicating matters was the fact that the four piers of the tower arced upward at a long curve to the tower’s second level, and current technology necessitated that elevators climb vertically. The simple solution would have been to construct elevator shafts in the center of the open arcade between the feet of the four piers, but although Eiffel was being accused of being a lowly engineer who cared nothing about aesthetics, he would not even discuss that option because, he believed, it would ruin the tower’s artistry. Instead, he issued a call to the four most-renowned French elevator firms to rapidly solve the problem of lifting passengers up the arcing piers, then waited in vain for a response.

Waiting as well was Elisha Otis, an innovative American elevator designer who was certain that he alone among the world’s engineers could solve Eiffel’s problem. Otis was so sure, in fact, that he designed a system — a very big and very complicated half elevator, half cog railway powered by hydraulics — specifically for the tower, then waited for Eiffel to come calling. Because the terms of Eiffel’s contract specified that every element of the tower be French material built by French manufacturers, Eiffel struggled with a number of lesser solutions until at last he had no choice but to ask exposition officials to make an exception and allow him to ask — rather late — for American help. Otis was delighted to be called on, and although his elevators were not ready to ferry passengers on the exposition’s opening day, May 1, 1889, they were in operation six weeks later, and ultimately worked so well — so swiftly and quietly — that the elevators themselves subsequently were highlighted as one of the most marvelous U.S. technological exhibits at the exposition.

Gustave Eiffel

More than eighty national pavilions and exhibit halls greeted the first of what ultimately were more than thirty-two million visitors to the Exposition Universelle de 1889, including the vast Galerie des Machines designed by Ferdinand Dutert, inside of which literally thousands of pumps, engines, and motors devoted to what seemed to be every conceivable human endeavor cranked and whirred and bedazzled the excited crowds who flocked to see them. Yet unquestionably, the thing that every fair visitor most wanted to see — and to climb — was La Tour Eiffel, and Eiffel himself felt hugely vindicated by the immediate popularity of the structure that had been so scorned only a year before and that successfully had broken the 300-meter barrier that many engineers had vowed could not be achieved. Writers now labeled the tower “a shepherdess keeping watch over her flock of bridges,” a “beguiling sky guitar,” as well as the most astounding structure ever built in France, America, or anywhere else in the world. And it was a measure of how difficult it would be top it — literally as well as figuratively — that when Chicago’s Columbian Exposition opened three years later, its centerpiece was merely engineer George Ferris’s rotating passenger wheel, a clever invention, yes, but for the moment, the French reigned supreme among the world’s builders, and Gustave Eiffel was king.

TWO YEARS FOLLOWING the anchoring of the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe’s Island and fully a year before he personally crowned his completed tower with the French tricolor flag, a supremely confident Gustave Eiffel agreed to come to the technological rescue of his colleague Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, whose sea-level canal project across Panama had fallen into deep trouble.

At the 1879 International Interoceanic Canal Study Conference in Paris, Eiffel had been one of only eight outspoken participants out of 135 gathered engineers, businessmen, geographers, and entrepreneurs who lobbied against Lesseps’s plan to connect the Atlantic and Pacific at sea level, favoring instead a canal comprised of a series of steel locks that, in effect, would allow ships to rise over the 400-foot Culebra range. Buoyed by the massive support for his plan — and angry with Eiffel for his opposition to it — Lesseps began construction of the sea-level canal in 1882 with only $6 million of the $24 million his company’s accountants initially estimated the project would cost. By 1885, the Culebra had hardly been dented and the French government refused to authorize the issuance of public bonds to supply Lesseps with the enormous amount of new capital he required. Increasingly desperate, Lesseps toured the United States in support of the long-delayed completion of the Statue of Liberty as a means of mustering American support for the canal as well.

Yet the private citizens of both countries remained wary of investing in the venture, despite Lesseps’s stellar reputation as a Grand Français and a man who could work miracles of every kind. By 1887, Lesseps had succeeded in his efforts to see the Statue of Liberty completed, but his canal project was far behind schedule and entirely out of money, and at last the count admitted that the only practical way for ships to cross Panama was via a series of locks — locks which Eiffel curiously had designed and patented at the same time he had begun to build his tower.

Eiffel tarried three weeks in deciding whether to accept Lesseps’s plea for help, then, in November 1887 — with his attention presumably monopolized by the requirements of erecting the tower — he signed a $27.4 million contract with Lesseps’s Universal Interoceanic Panama Canal Company to construct a ten-lock canal system on a scale never remotely attempted before and to complete the project in only thirty months — only slightly longer than the time needed to erect the much simpler tower in Paris. It was an astonishingly ambitious plan, one that most observers believed would be impossible — if the legendarily prudent Monsieur Eiffel had agreed to it, that is — and in August 1888, only six months after beginning work, Eiffel’s 6,000 canal workers had excavated 630,000 cubic yards of Panamanian earth, putting them fully ten months ahead of schedule. The French government at last agreed to allow Lesseps to float the bond issue it had denied him three years earlier, infusing the project with $51 million in new capital and making it appear that once more — with the same flamboyant and very public success he was experiencing on the Champs de Mars at the moment — Eiffel was accomplishing the impossible.

But on December 14, Lesseps’s company filed for bankruptcy, having already sunk a billion and a half francs — nearly $300 million — into the project. A civil tribunal officially dissolved the company for which Eiffel had gone to work, but Eiffel found it so difficult to believe that France would allow a project obviously in its long-term national interest to go under that he ordered his company to continue working until the spring of 1889, when French officials advised him that there was no hope that the company would ever be paid for the $1.4 million in work it had done since the bankruptcy had been declared. As the splendid Eiffel Tower reached its summit in March, and final work was completed for the opening of the exposition in May, Eiffel reluctantly and still disbelievingly abandoned the most ambitious undertaking of his career.

Following a long investigation, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps and Gustave Eiffel were indicted on charges of swindling and breach of the public trust on November 21, 1892, and a scandal of unparalleled portions burst open in Paris, one that ultimately demonstrated that Lesseps’s company had paid an astounding $4.4 million in bribes to help keep its financial troubles secret. In March 1893, Eiffel was found guilty of misusing funds entrusted to him and was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of $4,000. Eighty-seven-year old Lesseps, senile by now, was sentenced to a five-year prison term. Both sentences ultimately were overturned and Lesseps died eighteen months later entirely unaware of the scandal. But for Eiffel, its indignity ensured that he never would build another great project. He focused the remainder of his long life on his operation of the tower, which was an enormous financial success, as well as important weather and aerodynamic experimentation, much of which the tower itself made possible.

In 1904, the United States government purchased the remaining assets of Lesseps’s Panama Canal company for $40 million. Now an entirely American project, construction of a lock-system canal based entirely on Eiffel’s plans began that year and was completed a decade later. Its control of the crucially important new shipping route ensured the United States’s greatly enhanced international prominence, not only in the Americas but around the world. And, conversely, France’s retreat from a vital geographic and strategic presence in the New World initiated both its real and symbolic retreats from the decades of international power and prestige that had seemed so assured in the recent past. Only a few years before, at the time when the Statue of Liberty sailed to America and Eiffel’s tower rose to the delight and astonishment of the whole world, a wonderful new age of machines had commenced, it seemed certain, and so, too, had a competitive and difficult kind of friendship between France and the United States, an era in which the glories of which humankind now was capable seemed perfectly captured in those two iconic structures — a copper lady and a very tall iron tower whose importance would only continue to grow.

Russell Martin is a filmmaker, novelist, screenwriter, and nonfiction author, and the principal of Say Yes Quickly Productions.

Copyright © 2015 Russell Martin. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this essay may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the author.

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