HARRISBURG, Pa.—By 8:30 a.m. on this early July day in 1986, cars in the east and westbound lanes of Route 322 outside Dauphin were pulling off the road.
Traffic jams are rare along this stretch of highway, which hugs the Susquehanna River for the nine miles between Fort Hunter and Duncannon. But on this morning, commuters were getting out of their vehicles to stand at the riverbank, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.
Lady Liberty was rising out of the Susquehanna.
Nobody knew how a 17.5-foot Statue of Liberty replica materialized in this shallow river bend. The next few days, when nobody would claim responsibility for her appearance, were "a fun, exciting mystery," recalls Dana Lomma of Dauphin.
Now the statue's origin is well known: Local activist Gene Stilp built it from wood and venetian blinds in a friend's garage in Harrisburg. On the evening of July 1, 1986, he recruited about a dozen friends to help place her in the Susquehanna—a feat that required two boats, two canoes, and an elaborate ropes and pulley system.
Stilp saw the stunt as an act of patriotism and tribute to the original Statue of Liberty, which turned 100 that summer.
But years after its installation, what does Lady Liberty signify to the people in his community?
"It's an anchor," says Mike Lingle of Madison, Connecticut, formerly of Mechanicsburg. Like many people in the Dauphin area, Lingle says that the statue signals that he's close to the place he calls home.
"(Driving) down the river is beautiful, but it all looks the same," Lingle says, describing the drive to his hometown. "But you see the statue and it's a gateway to Harrisburg. It tells people that we're open and we're proud."
Laurie Brown of Camp Hill passes the statue going to and from her daughter's college campus in Selinsgrove.
"We'll be driving back and when (my daughter) sees the statue, she says, 'I'm home,'" Brown says. "Everyone has a 'Now we're here' moment on a drive, and the statue is hers."
Stilp says he intended to remove the statue after Labor Day in 1986, but she remained in the river until a storm toppled her in 1992.
Bereft of its signature landmark, the community rallied to replace her with a larger, more durable replica.
Stilp collected donations and sold commemorative merchandise to raise money for the replacement. By 1997, with the help of local engineers, stone masons and woodworkers, he had built a 4-ton, 25-foot statue from metal, plywood and fiberglass.
Reenacting the amphibious installation of 1986 would be impossible with the new replica's dimensions. A local helicopter company offered to discount its fee to airlift her to the pier, and Frank Masters, a Dauphin lawyer, donated the final sum of money to secure their services.
Given the collective effort that brought the statue back to life, many people today see it as an emblem of a close-knit community.
"To me it symbolizes connection," says Diane Staz of Duncannon. "I know how many people in the community it took to do it. I always check it when I go by—it's just a beautiful thing, and when I see it I feel hopeful."
While the community was instrumental in refurbishing the statue, people also see it and think of the mastermind who conceived of the idea. Staz adds that the statue "is a symbol of (Stilp's) beliefs, too—he's always fighting for liberty and freedom."
Josh Hooper of Camp Hill agrees that he "can't see the statue as an ordinary citizen" because of his friendship with Stilp.
"(Gene) really has made a lot of difference in the area, so I (see the statue and) think of the difference one person can make," Hooper said.
Stilp, a lawyer and political activist, is known for using high profile props to make a statement—and not all of them are intended to inspire pride.
In 2005, he gained regional fame for the inflatable pink pig he placed on the steps of the Harrisburg capital building to ridicule midnight pay raises for legislators.
The pig has reappeared to protest other legislative choices from Harrisburg.
However, Lady Liberty was one of Stilp's first and most enduring political acts. Stilp says that he met his co-conspirators through activist work in the anti-nuclear movement, and the statue was, in part, a counter-protest to nuclear proliferation in the midstate.
"Three Mile Island was tyranny," Stilp says, referring to the nuclear power plant in the Susquehanna. "This little island was freedom."