The Legend Behind Lady Liberty on the Susquehanna River
Story and photograph by Becki Kraft
If you have ever traveled Route 322 east or west through the town of Dauphin, specifically the Dauphin Narrows, you surely have seen Lady Liberty on the Susquehanna. Following is a bit of the back story, hopefully with a few new facts you haven’t already heard.
In 1986, Gene Stilp decided that in celebration of the real Statue of Liberty’s 100th anniversary, he would build a replica and erect it on an old railroad bridge pier in the middle of the Susquehanna River.
From the beginningAfter collecting venetian blinds from the neighborhood—the neighborhood had no idea what Gene was doing with those blinds—he set up shop in an empty house near the Governor’s Mansion in Harrisburg and began putting Lady Liberty together.
When the statue became too large, Gene contacted a friend, Ed Nielson, to see if he could use his workshop to complete the statue. Construction took approximately two weeks. When it was nearing completion, Gene contacted a few more friends to help place the statue on the pier.
Gene and friends made a plan to sneak the statue onto the pier in the middle of the night. Ed Chubb, who just happened to be the director of parks and recreation in Dauphin County at the time, commandeered the county’s large jon boat to carry the statue out to the pier.
Doug Killian was recruited to drive the smaller jon boat, which towed the larger one holding the statue. Steve Oliphant was the dedicated “Safety Officer” for the project because of his extensive river knowledge. “It was a very skilled task, towing the second boat holding the statue on the river at night!” recalls Oliphant.
Beloved symbolIn the middle of the night of July 2, 1986, Gene and friends took the statue, made of plywood and venetian blinds, and erected it on the pier. Lady Liberty was 17.5 feet tall and weighed 450 lbs. She even held a torch, which was actually the mooring light from Steve Oliphant’s houseboat. It was battery operated and didn’t last long. The other members of the crew were Aloysius Stilp (Gene’s father, who was part of the riverbank crew), Damen Wellman and Mike Lomma. (It was always thought to have been the work of Gene and three friends, but alas, you now know it was a much larger crew!)
Lady Liberty attracted plenty of attention, and caused traffic jams on route 322 both east- and westbound. She seemed to just pop up out of nowhere overnight! She was a popular lady and became, to the people of Central Pennsylvania, a beloved symbol of our freedom. She lasted six years, until 1992 when a storm bringing 80 mph winds blew in and badly damaged her, causing her to be removed from the pier.
Round twoThe first Lady Liberty had become such a landmark to folks throughout the region that Gene Stilp was convinced to build another sturdier replica of the statue. T-shirts, hats, mugs and paintings by local artist David Lenker were sold to raise funds. Many items were sold at the local Dauphin Pharmacy. A total of $25,000 was raised, and the replica was built—this time out of metal, plywood and fiberglass.
It took several years to complete the second statue. She stands 25 feet tall and weighed 4 tons. She was built mainly in Gene Stilp’s barn and completed at Advanced Composites in Harrisburg, with a few finishing touches at Fort Hunter on transport day.
The statue was completed and transported by a low boy from Advanced Composites to Fort Hunter. After many permits were secured, on July 3, 1997 (almost 11 years to the day the first statue was erected), Lady Liberty was flown from Fort Hunter by Carson Helicopter’s, Perkasie, PA, to her home on the Susquehanna.
She was placed on the pier, which stands 33.5 feet tall, 8.5 feet wide and 30 feet long. The top of the pier had been prepared and built up to hold the statue firmly in place.
Lady Liberty still stands today, after almost 21 years, and can be seen from both sides of the river. Hopefully, Lady Liberty remains steady on that old railroad pier that has lovingly supported her for so many years.
Note: The pier on which Lady Liberty stands is one of several piers that once supported the old Northern Central Railroad Bridge from Marysville to Dauphin. It was last used in 1882.
Becki Kraft is a mother of five, grandmother of three, married, retired and enjoys photography in her free time.