Many secrets lie hidden in the low valleys of Pennsylvania’s undulating hills. In the heart of one of the most storied states in the country there stands a maiden watching over the Susquehanna Valley. No special equipment is required to see this apparition; one only needs to drive on Route 322 towards State College in the light of day. Look toward the river and on an abandoned railroad piling she appears: a stark, poised Lady Liberty all in white greeting those who drive past. This scaled-down replica of The Statue of Liberty, constructed by Dauphin local Gene Stilp, was constructed and erected in 1986 to commemorate the original statue’s centennial. It has since gone from local legend to a tourist staple for motorists traveling to and from Harrisburg on Route 322.
The unique replica of the Statue of Liberty stands in the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County. She currently rises 25 feet from an old bridge piling in a section of the Susquehanna River known as the Dauphin Narrows. “Of all the replicas across America, it’s one of the larger ones,” says Stilp, who also believes his statue has the best location. The original was erected in 1986 and constructed from fiberglass and venetian blinds. Only meant to last for a few weeks, the first statue stood until 1992 when a series of storms forced her removal. Through an outpouring of local support, a second statue was constructed, this time made from fiberglass and other durable materials and lifted by helicopter to her pedestal in the Susquehanna.
The inception of the statue was veiled in secrecy, only known by a few local men in Dauphin. The idea was the brainchild of Gene Stilp, a non-practicing lawyer and engineering hobbyist. He drafted plans and began construction of the statue using plywood and venetian blinds in a friend’s garage. Upon completion, Stilp gathered a few of his friends whom he could trust with his secret, and on the night of July 1, 1986, 12 men set out to put their Lady Liberty in her place.
One of the men, safety coordinator Steve Oliphant recalls, “I was concerned about taking a bunch of knuckleheads with a 450-pound statue out into the Dauphin Narrows. It can get dangerous out there.” With only a few small boats, Stilp and his men paddled out onto the Susquehanna to the old Marysville Bridge piling. “We were 32 feet in the air, and it was pitch black, and we had to be very careful,” mused Stilp. Using only ropes and their combined man power, the men hoisted the 450 pound construction up the 30 feet to her perch. The men then convened over pizza and beer, not knowing they had sown the seeds of local legend.
By the next morning, numerous cars were pulled over on the side of Route 322, taking pictures and calling into local radio stations about a white apparition that appeared on the river. Stilp and his cohorts did not know how the public would react, fearing it could be labeled as a hoax. To their surprise, the people of Dauphin County embraced the statue as an enduring symbol of patriotism and hope for their country. Stilp was identified as the creator within a few weeks.
Gene Stilp is no stranger to installing his work in public. Though he is a non-practicing lawyer, Stilp is still very involved in politics. In 2012, Stilp constructed a 25-foot long inflatable pig that drew attention to government corruption. In his race for the 11th District Congressional seat that year, Stilp was asked about his involvement with the Statue on the Susquehanna: “How do you build community? It’s about caring about where you live.” He also spoke on its legacy: “It’s become a landmark, and I think it’s become an inspiration for people. It makes you think about a set of values we like in this country.”
It was Stilp’s intention to remove the statue by Labor Day 1986, and the materials used in construction seemed to come with a similar expiration date. Somehow, the statue remained unperturbed for five years until a series of storms damaged the statue to the point that its removal was necessary. In its tenure on the river, the statue cemented its place in the hearts of the people of Dauphin and neighboring Middle Paxton Township. It brought new life to the normally quiet lives of the people nestled in Pennsylvania’s sleepy valleys. When it was removed, there was an immediate call to have it rebuilt.
In 1993, plans for reconstruction began: a 24-foot granite statue to be built by a group of local residents. It was going to cost an estimated $60,000 to build her again, along with the $250 yearly fee to use the bridge piling. “You’re talking about a first-class statue,” said Russell Enders, Borough Council president. Local plumbers and pipe fitters prepared a crown and torch for the new statue, which were unveiled at a daylong ceremony. Gene Stilp even went so far as to acquire a special granite cutter that used wire instead of diamond, which would save the group thousands in production costs. All seemed well; Dauphin County would once again be watched over by their Lady Liberty. But, somehow, the project hit a snag.
Well into 1996, there was still no statue. The Save Susqehanna’s Lady Liberty Committee, led by Gene Stilp himself, had collected countless donations, and had sold mugs, t-shirts, and even Christmas ornaments to fund the project.
Some local residents believed that the statue did not need to be replaced, that it was an eyesore detracting from the natural beauty of the river and surrounding landscape. In a letter published by Harrisburg’s Patriot News, resident Pete Barron wrote:
“I grew up in the Dauphin area. I’ve fished the river many times in Dauphin. A statue of any kind is not going to improve the scenic beauty. Stand in the Dauphin Narrows and watch the sunset. You can easily see the beauty of nature. Erecting a four-ton statue and thrusting it upon the Susquehanna appears to have become more of a monument to the people involved than to Liberty.”
Soon, dissent began to spread throughout the counties involved in the project. Questions were raised over Stilp’s ability to oversee the project. Stilp had to abandon constructing the statue from granite, as it would be much too heavy. He settled on constructing it mostly from fiberglass, wood, and metal. Such a construction would be impossible for a group of men to haul as they did that summer night. Stilp inquired with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard to have the statue airlifted onto the piling, free of charge. His inquiries seemed to fall on deaf ears as five years passed since the fall of the original. Fed up with Stilp’s inability to produce results, and desperate for their landmark to return, the Dauphin Borough Council took over the project in January of 1997.
Six months of construction later, a four-ton replica of Lady Liberty was airlifted to the stone pedestal from which she had fallen five years earlier. This new statue, constructed of metal, wood, and fiberglass with a polyester finish cost an estimated $33,000 to complete. It was a triumphant moment for the people involved and the surrounding communities, with over 100 spectators watching the event. Georgina Ciesnolcvicz drove all of the way from Wisconsin clad in patriotic attire: “All I did was bawl.” The statue was met with applause and cheers as it was secured into place. This small Pennsylvania town had its landmark back. “I knew we were going to get it done, no matter what the naysayers said. I’m not a sculptor; I’m just an amateur who is winging it,” Stilp said.
There, on the ever-rushing, roaring narrows of the Susquehanna River, Gene Stilp’s Lady Liberty has remained to this day. She endures freezing temperatures and howling winds, the baking sun and violent storms. Stilp is still involved with the statue, organizing a cleanup every few years that draws large numbers from the community. “It’s a tough time for America, so it’s nice to have a reminder of what people will do together. Everyone coming out and helping out. That’s a community,” said local songwriter Alex Kaschock. Strangers and neighbors alike continue to unite behind the preservation of their slice of Americana. Lady Liberty of the Dauphin Narrows serves as an enduring symbol of patriotism for this quaint town rooted in tradition.