The Longest War

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About The Book

Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize ** A Wall Street Journal Best Book of the Year

Rust has been called “the great destroyer,” the “pervasive menace,” and “the evil.” “This look at corrosion—its causes, its consequences, and especially the people devoted to combating it—is wide-ranging and consistently engrossing” (The New York Times).

It is the hidden enemy, the one that challenges the very basis of civilization. This entropic menace destroys cars, fells bridges, sinks ships, sparks house fires, and nearly brought down the Statue of Liberty’s torch. It is rust—and this book, full of wit and insight, disasters and triumphs—is its story.

“Jonathan Waldman’s first book is as obsessive as it is informative…he takes us deep into places and situations that are too often ignored or unknown” (The Washington Post). In Rust, Waldman travels from Key West to Prudhoe Bay, meeting people concerned with corrosion. He sneaks into an abandoned steelworks and nearly gets kicked out of Can School. He follows a high-tech robot through an arctic winter, hunting for rust in the Alaska pipeline. In Texas, he finds a corrosion engineer named Rusty, and in Colorado, he learns of the animosity between the galvanizing industry and the paint army. Along the way, Waldman recounts stories of flying pigs, Trekkies, rust boogers, and unlikely superheroes.

The result is a man-versus-nature tale that’s as fascinating as it is grand, illuminating a hidden phenomenon that shapes the modern world. Rust affects everything from the design of our currency to the composition of our tap water, and it will determine the legacy we leave on this planet. This exploration of corrosion, and the incredible lengths we go to fight it, is “engrossing…brilliant…Waldman’s gift for narrative nonfiction shines in every chapter….Watching things rust: who would have thought it could be so exciting” (Natural History).


On Saturday, May 10, 1980, her caretaker slept in. David Moffitt awoke around eight o’clock and put on civilian clothes. He had a cup of coffee, then went out to the garden on the south side of his brick house, on Liberty Island, and started pulling weeds. A trained floriculturist who’d worked on Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification efforts in Washington, DC, he had a spectacular vegetable garden. As the superintendent of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, he also had a spectacular backyard. As usual for a day off, he planned to do a little bit of gardening before going to Manhattan with his wife and three kids, to go shopping in the city or bike riding in Central Park. It was a clear day, about 50 degrees, with a steady light wind out of the southwest. Moffitt was on his knees, pruning roses, a couple of hours later, when Mike Tennent, his chief ranger, ran up and told him that two guys were climbing the outside of the statue. That was a first. Moffitt looked up, focused his hazel eyes, and confirmed the claim. So much for his day off.

It was about 150 yards from Moffitt’s house to the statue, and on the walk there, he could hear visitors yelling from the base of the pedestal up at the climbers. “Assholes!” they yelled. “Faggots!” Their visits were being interrupted, and they objected, because they knew the situation was unlikely to end in their favor. Moffitt was already as mad as the visitors, but not for the same reason. He thought the climbers were desecrating the statue, and probably damaging it. Moffitt, who was forty-one, with thick dark brown hair and a Houston accent, had gotten the job—considered a hardship assignment on account of the isolation—because of his good track record with maintenance. The island, and the statue, had fallen into disrepair; the National Park Service recognized that its maintenance programs were wholly deficient. Moffitt was the first full-time caretaker in a dozen years.

Halfway to the statue, Moffitt stopped, and watched the climbers unfurl a banner. Liberty Was Framed, it said in bold red letters, above Free Geronimo Pratt. Until then, he’d figured the climbers were just pranksters. Now, though he didn’t know who Geronimo Pratt was, he knew the duo were protesters. And he knew how to resolve the situation. The NYPD had a team skilled at removing people from high places—he’d seen footage on TV—and he would call them. So he turned around, walked to his office, and ordered the island evacuated. Inside the statue, an announcement blared over its PA system requesting that visitors proceed to the dock area due to an operational problem. In his office, Moffitt then called the National Park Service Regional Director’s Office in Boston. He’d done this a few times before, and was destined to do it many more times again.

On his watch, Puerto Rican nationals had occupied the statue for most of a day, and a handful of Iranian students had chained themselves to the statue, protesting America’s treatment of the Shah. On his watch, he dealt with about ten bomb threats a year. Before his time, the statue had been the site for college kids protesting President Richard Nixon, veterans protesting Vietnam, the American Revolutionary Students Brigade protesting the Iranian government, and the mayor of New York protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews. As Moffitt well recognized, the statue was the ideal place to protest any perceived wrong. So Moffitt called the NYPD, rather than the US Park Police—and this decision had ramifications for the climbers, and more importantly, the statue.

When the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit arrived, its agents were cheered by the departing visitors. They quickly assessed the situation. A “removal,” they determined, would be too dangerous. They figured nets were needed. And helicopters. Given all of this, Moffitt figured that the situation might take a while to conclude and told his wife to go to Manhattan without him. Then he learned from the NYPD that Geronimo Pratt was a Black Panther convicted in the murder of a Santa Monica teacher, a crime for which he’d been imprisoned for a decade, and he remained angry. There was nothing admirable about desecrating the statue, no matter the cause. “I took the job of protecting this symbol of America very seriously,” Moffitt recalled.

Moffitt spent the day in his office, watching the climbers through a pair of government-issued binoculars. That afternoon, he took a call from a reporter at the New York Daily News. In the middle of the interview, he heard a banging sound coming from the statue. “God damn them!” someone below the statue yelled at the same time. “They’re busting my statue!” A ranger came in the office and said one of the climbers was driving pitons into the copper skin. Moffitt doesn’t recall how many bangs he heard, but he remembers being frantic. Now he was sure they were damaging his statue. He yelled at the reporter, then hung up.

Up on the statue, Ed Drummond, a thirty-four-year-old English poet from San Francisco with an arrest record for climbing buildings and hanging banners, was struggling. After traversing around the left foot, then up and left, the climbing became more difficult than he had expected, or had been prepared for. It had taken him two hours to get to the crook of Lady Liberty’s right knee, and now he was stuck on a small ledge, looking up at a short chimney in the folds of the robe on her back. The surface of the copper skin, in particular, was causing problems, rendering his two eight-inch suction cups useless. The skin was covered in millions of little bumps, almost like acne, the result of the French craftsmen who pounded the copper into shape a century before. Consequently, his suction cups stuck only for about ten seconds, even if he pushed with all of his might. “I realized that they were not going to work,” he recalled, describing the fatigue he began to feel in his arms. He slipped, slithered down a few feet, and barely caught himself with his other suction cup. He was aware of the consequences of falling. “You’d just go hurtling out into the air,” he recalled, “and end up two hundred feet down on the esplanade.” It was also almost certain that if that happened, he would pull his climbing partner, Stephen Rutherford—a thirty-one-year-old teacher-in-training from Berkeley, California—off too.

As he climbed, he could see that between the plates of copper there was often a small gap. The plates had begun to lift for some reason, though the edge formed was not big enough to use for climbing. He also noticed many little holes in the statue, which he had not seen from the ground. Rumor had it, among Statue of Liberty buffs, that they were bullet holes. As the climbing grew more desperate, with his back on one wall of the chimney and both of his feet on the other, he tried placing a tiny S-hook, which he’d bought last minute, in one of the holes, for support. Using a sling, he weighted it, and under less than his full weight, it bent alarmingly.

Drummond had planned to climb up the statue’s back, and onto her left shoulder, then stay in a little cave under the lock of hair over her left ear. Sheltered from wind and rain, anchored to that lock of hair, he planned to keep a weeklong vigil. (He brought a sleeping bag, and a supply of cheese, dates, apples, canned salmon, and water bottles.) He planned to drape his banner across the statue’s chest, like a bra. But he never made it past the chimney. Instead, he decided to spend the night on the ledge, and descend in the morning. He told as much to the NYPD, who relayed the information to Moffitt. That night, Moffitt didn’t get much sleep. From his bed, through his window, he watched Drummond and Rutherford. His children complained about all of the hubbub and helicopters flying around.

The next morning—Mother’s Day—Drummond and Rutherford surrendered, more or less twenty-four hours after they’d started. By the time they’d rappelled to the statue’s feet, the press had shown up on the mezzanine. A reporter yelled up, “Did you use any pitons?” Immediately, Drummond yelled down, “No, we haven’t damaged the statue!” Then, below the small overhang formed by the little toe of the statue’s left foot, he yelled, “This is how we climbed the statue!” and pressed one of the suction cups against the metal. He and Rutherford hung from it. As they descended into the scrum of police waiting with handcuffs, Drummond insisted, again, that he hadn’t damaged the statue. Moffitt, though, later told the Associated Press reporter that the climbers were “driving small spikes” into the statue. As he was talking to reporters, someone handed Moffitt a note from the US Attorney’s Office. It said, “Do not offer them amnesty.” Moffitt wasn’t about to. He was furious.

After a night in jail, Drummond and Rutherford were charged with criminal trespassing and damaging government property, to the tune of $80,000. By then, Moffitt had studied the statue through his binoculars, and discovered the same holes that Drummond had. He’d also sent one of his maintenance guys up the statue to inspect the damage from the inside. He discovered that the holes were everywhere, and weren’t the result of pounding pitons, or spikes of any kind, into the copper. They were places where the rivets, which held the statue’s copper skin to her iron frame, had popped out. The holes in the statue hadn’t been created by Drummond at all. They’d been created by corrosion.

So Ed Drummond was right. Liberty was framed, and her frame was rusting.

What had been interpreted as an act of vandalism turned out to be a much bigger headache for Moffitt. Sure, there was graffiti on the inside of the statue, but nobody had ever damaged the outside. At least Moffitt was pretty sure. Perplexed, he dug through a file cabinet, in search of reports on the statue’s condition. He found none. So he had a short section of scaffolding put up to inspect the damage on the statue. Scuff marks, and small spots where Drummond’s rope had worn away the green patina, were discovered. He also called the National Park Service’s design/construction firm in Denver, and asked their engineers to examine the statue and report on its condition. Two engineers came out a few weeks later, and investigated. They wrote a memo, and gave it to Moffitt. It concluded that the statue was basically sound, corrosion notwithstanding, and did not recommend any repairs. Moffitt was relieved they’d found no damage, but was disappointed that the inspection was solely visual. He was hoping for something more. He’d seen the damage himself, and he wanted answers. So on May 20 Moffitt had two of his staff ask the Winterthur Museum, which had examined the Liberty Bell, to determine the “causes of the severe corrosion and make suggestions to stabilize the system to avoid catastrophic destruction.” They sent two copper samples from Lady Liberty’s torch to the museum, and the museum put them in front of Norman Nielsen, a metallurgist at DuPont.

Nielsen’s report wasn’t much more illuminating than the one from Denver. “It was hoped,” he wrote, “that such a study would define the corrosion processes that appear to be causing the copper to deteriorate at an alarming rate and which might suggest measures that might be taken to stabilize the corrosion process.” Instead, his investigation, achieved via X-ray fluorescence, merely identified the chemical composition of the copper, its patina, and some of the impurities within, including antimony, lead, silver, zinc, and mercury.

Two days before Nielsen finished his report, Drummond’s case was heard. It was obvious, by then, that Drummond hadn’t put the holes in the statue, and the damage charges were dismissed. After all, Drummond had brought no pitons, and no hammer—as was recorded in the report of his arrest, during which his backpack was searched. The banging sound, it turned out, had come from a police officer rapping the butt of his gun on the inside of the statue. But Drummond was convicted of trespassing, a misdemeanor for which he was sentenced to six months of probation and twenty-four hours of community service.

A few months later, Moffitt received a phone call from a lawyer representing a couple of French engineers who’d just completed the restoration of a similar copper and iron statue, called Vercingetorix. They offered to do a more thorough investigation of the Statue of Liberty, which, after all, had been a gift from France. (It’s not surprising that France beat us to the punch; France’s history with metal structures is generations older than America’s.) Moffitt was all for it, as his questions remained unanswered, and he knew further inquiry would be limited by severely restricted NPS funds. The coincidence was serendipitous, to say the least, as Moffitt had twice suggested the formation of a commission to plan for the statue’s upcoming hundredth anniversary, but gotten nowhere, because of budget constraints under President Jimmy Carter. He knew the statue would need to be spiffed up, but nobody, it seemed, wanted to hear about it, much less pay for it. So Moffitt met the engineers at Liberty Island, and arranged for them to meet with the director of the Park Service. A year after Drummond’s ascent, they agreed to form a partnership to restore the Statue of Liberty. The years of “neglect and deterioration,” as the Park Service referred to the 1960s and 1970s at the statue, were about to end. Amazingly, what had begun as an obscure attention-getting stunt by two protesters ended with the most symbolic rust battle in this nation’s history.

The rusting statue—once the world’s tallest iron structure—was a mystery. As seven architects and engineers from France and America began to research her past, they pieced together details. What was clear was that she had been managed, or mismanaged, in a variety of ways, by a mess of agencies. She’d been built in 1886, on top of Fort Wood, on Bedloe’s Island, and after two weeks of orphanage, was initially overseen by the US Light-House Board, which was part of the Treasury Department. She spent fifteen years in that agency’s care, and then twenty-three years under the War Department, before she was declared a national monument. Nine years later she was transferred to the National Park Service. In other words, a half century transpired before anyone with a sense of preservation took over caring for her. One of the first things the NPS did, with the Works Progress Administration, in 1937, was replace parts of her corroded iron frame. Good preservationists, they replaced iron bars with similar iron bars. But, because all of the work was done from the inside of the statue, they used self-tapping screws, rather than rivets. You could say they botched the job. Since then, the statue hadn’t received much better care; the monument hadn’t had an official superintendent since August 1964. There’d been a management assistant, three assistant superintendents, one acting assistant superintendent, a unit manager (none for more than two and a half years), and finally Moffitt, in January 1977.

The American half of the team—Richard Hayden, Thierry Despont, and Edward Cohen—wanted more detail about the statue’s past, so they visited other statues built by the statue’s architect, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, and its engineer, Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel. They went to the Bartholdi museum, in Colmar, France, to see notes, papers, models, and a journal from 1885. They found no drawings, but found out that Bartholdi never intended visitors to see the inside of the statue, which complicated things, because Americans loved that part of her. Elsewhere, they found Eiffel’s sketches, and nine handwritten pages from November 12, 1881, showing calculations for the statue’s frame—explaining how 270,000 pounds of iron could support 160,000 pounds of copper.

The frame’s design—an iron skeleton riveted to the copper skin—was ingenious, and risky, and Bartholdi had known it. In fact, he’d originally chosen another design, by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, in which the statue was filled up to the hips with sand. But Viollet-le-Duc died in 1879, so Bartholdi went with Eiffel. Eiffel’s design was risky because the two metals couldn’t actually touch each other. Dissimilar metals, in contact, would corrode, as Luigi Galvani had discovered a century before. The corrosion had a name: galvanic corrosion. It’s how batteries work, actually. Electrons travel from the weaker, more electronegative, metal, to the stronger one—and in the process the weaker one is destroyed, which is why batteries don’t last forever. In the case of the Statue of Liberty, the voltage was only about a quarter of a volt—not enough to illuminate even the smallest lightbulb—but persistent, far more so than any battery. Eiffel was aware of the risk, and planned to manage it by separating the iron from the copper with shellac-impregnated asbestos. It was the best technology of the era, and he had faith. “In regard to the preservation of the work,” he wrote, “since all the elements of its construction are everywhere visible on the inside in all their details, it will be easily kept in good condition.” Scientific American saw it differently, and within a month of the statue’s completion, warned, “There are five dangers to be feared, namely, earthquake, wind, lightning, galvanic action, and man.” Bartholdi took up the defense. “I have no doubt that with care and looking after, the monument will last as long as those built by the Egyptians,” he wrote, after the statue was built. Things turned out differently, partly because he had never planned for paint.

It’s not clear who first decided to paint the interior of the statue, but the job was done thoroughly in 1911, with a layer of black coal tar. On top of that, some other copycat in 1932 slathered a layer of aluminum paint, and someone else, in 1947 added enamel paint, specially formulated for removing graffiti. Before Moffitt arrived, at least six others ordered a layer of paint thrown on top of the others, for good measure. Intent on preserving the statue, Moffitt followed their lead. One of the first things he did as superintendent was paint the inside of the statue, with a light-green lead-based paint. Where there should have been a sign that said Caution: High Corrosion Risk, there was just layers of paint. All of that paint was almost as thick as the copper, and unfortunately, had trapped water between the iron frame and the copper skin—exactly what Eiffel and Bartholdi had wanted to avoid. Water between the copper and iron was as bad as having the two metals in contact with each other. Hence one of the American team’s first discoveries: the statue had become an enormous battery. As a result, corrosion had produced a lot of “wastage,” and in some places, paint was the only material holding things together.

The French half of the team, meanwhile, began collecting scientific, rather than historic, data. They installed wind gauges on the outside of the statue, and 142 strain and acceleration gauges in it. They installed carbon dioxide and humidity gauges inside, too, to measure condensation from the breath of millions of visitors in an enclosed place that, in the summer, regularly climbed above 120 degrees. They X-rayed the frame to check for cracks, and at Cetim, the Technical Center for the Mechanical Industry, in Senlis, France, they ran fatigue and impact tests on samples of the puddled iron frame, to see how cracks formed and propagated, and how the metal reacted to dynamic stresses caused by wind. They used ultrasonic calipers to measure the thickness of the copper skin, and photographed every one of the three hundred copper plates.

By December 1981, the French-American Committee for the Restoration of the Statue of Liberty had produced a preliminary diagnosis report, confirming Moffitt’s suspicions that the statue was not, as Denver had declared, “basically sound.” On July 14, 1983, the French-American Committee published a thirty-six-page magazine-like report, offering four restoration proposals. The proposals varied only in the extent to which they would improve accessibility and conditions for visitors: stairs, elevators, resting platforms. Otherwise, the proposals included the same amount of structural repair, “to assure the integrity of the structure and avoid additional electrolysis”—by which they meant corrosion—“for the foreseeable future.”

Everywhere engineers had looked, in every part of the statue, they found corrosion, or a contributor to it. Only the exterior of the copper skin had withstood corrosion, and been deemed “normal,” rivet holes and other damage notwithstanding. Once the iron frame had begun to rust, the degradation spiraled out of control. When a spot on the frame rusted, it swelled, and inhibited movement of the flexible joint between the copper skin and the iron frame (which was there to allow for the slight expansion and contraction of the copper), which then warped the copper, and eventually pulled rivets out, putting yet more strain on the copper skin. It was called “jacking,” and it was like a chain reaction. More popped rivets meant more water getting in, especially because of the pressure difference between the inside and the outside of the statue. Lady Liberty almost sucked water in. One-third of the statue’s twelve thousand framing rivets were loose, damaged, or missing, and more or less half of the frame had corroded. The asbestos insulator—which actually wicked water, exacerbating the damage—had long since disintegrated. As a result, some of the ribs in the frame had lost two-thirds of their thickness. The lattice girders below the statue’s robe and feet were “particularly corroded”; in photos, it looks like some sort of metal beaver chewed away at them. The frame of the book in her left hand was “very corroded,” and beneath her crown it wasn’t much better. The staircase was rusted badly. The corrosion in the frame of her right arm was severe, in the torch it was “extensive.” Corrosion in the whole frame was so “deleterious” that the system was said not to function anymore. There was, according to the report, “definite risk of structural failure” in the torch, an event that would be embarrassing to say the least.

Water was entering the statue through the rivet holes, through badly designed weep holes (intended to let water out of the statue), from the lungs of millions of visitors, whose breath condensed inside the statue, and from a sizeable hole in the statue’s raised bicep, where one of her seven spikes was poking through. The statue’s lack of watertightness was most obvious in the winter, when it was easy to find snow inside the statue. Water was also coming in from the torch, which had been a disaster from the beginning.

In 1886, as the statue was assembled—or reassembled—in America, Bartholdi had wanted eight lights on the torch to illuminate the gilded copper flame. A week before the statue’s inauguration, on October 28, the US Army Corps of Engineers told him that the lights would interfere with boat navigation in the harbor, and that his design would have to be modified. Lieutenant John Millis, of the US Light-House Board, decided to cut two rows of portholes in the torch, and illuminate it from within. The illumination was pathetic, barely visible from Manhattan. Bartholdi said the flame was like the “light of a glow worm.” In 1892 the upper row of portholes was enlarged into an eighteen-inch band of glass, above which a skylight was added. Bartholdi remained unsatisfied. Twenty-four years later, a dozen years after he died, an artist named John Gutzon Borglum attacked the torch, sculpting away much of it. He cut out 250 rectangles, and put in 250 panes of amber glass. Borglum went on to attack Mount Rushmore. A metalworker later wrote that the torch resembled “a shapeless Chinese lantern,” though it also resembled a huge bird cage, inside and out. The windows leaked, and the ventilation holes below were perfect bird entrances. Hence all of the rust.

The torch—the highest, wettest, windiest, least inspected part of the statue—was also the most delicate part. It had been made of thinner metal, to allow for intricate details on the soffit above the handle, and the pendant below. Up above the Hudson, it was also the most desirable spot for birds to roost. As a result, it was the most damaged part of the statue. Early on in the restoration, Hayden and Despont, of the American restoration team, climbed into the torch with a few park rangers, to check it out. In the bottom of the torch pendant, there was a stagnant puddle of water and bird poop, which they called a “primordial soup.” The mixture was eating through the metal. If not for a threaded rod, with a large bolt, the pendant would have fallen off. They snapped a photo of themselves up there. At the next meeting, they passed it around. They were promptly advised by other engineers not to attempt that “daring feat” again, because the frame in the torch was seriously weakened. The frame, in fact, was missing. There was only a shadow of where it had been.

As the scale of the restoration became evident, the French-American Committee was superseded by an American commission and foundation for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. The organizations raised money, investigated, prepared, and finally got around to fixing the Statue of Liberty. Since the research and planning alone had taken three years, the next three years of restoration were hectic. They formed subcommittees, coordinating committees, subgroups, advisory groups, and groupements before offshoot state-level commissions and foundations latched on. They held meetings at the Waldorf Astoria, and they took flights to Paris, for walks at Versailles. The work was accomplished by more than three hundred workers—consultants, compagnons, experts of all kinds—working for more than thirty contractors. Prominent companies helped with technical research, and so many companies offered to donate tools and materials that hundreds were turned down. Even NASA chipped in. The foundation ran the largest direct-mail campaign ever, and eventually the most successful fund-raising campaign in American history. So that they could get materials to the island, they repaired a pier, then built a 1,200-foot bridge, from New Jersey to Ellis Island, because it was cheaper than transporting supplies on barges. Around the statue, they erected the world’s tallest freestanding scaffolding, and eventually they fixed the statue up properly, drastically increasing her life expectancy. It was all overseen by Lee Iacocca—the man who saved Chrysler—who was appointed chairman of the endeavor by President Ronald Reagan on May 17, 1982.

Iacocca said he’d raise $230 million, $300 million, $500 million, or $1 billion if he had to. The fund-raising effort began in New York, and soon spread to Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas, where fund-raising offices were opened. A gala at New York’s Lincoln Center, with Luciano Pavarotti and Bob Hope, raised $750,000. Gerald Ford appeared at an event in Tennessee, pulling in less money. A toll-free 800 number was purchased, for phone pledges. Congress authorized the minting of thirty-five million commemorative coins. American Express donated a portion of all Traveler’s Check sales.

Schoolkids all over the country collected pennies, sold muffins, and grew flowers for the cause. By July 4, 1986, kids at more than twenty thousand schools had raised over $5 million. A disabled six-year-old in Indianapolis raised $3,000. Ethnic organizations pledged money: Italian groups, Czechoslovakian groups, Greek, Polish, Serbian, Byelorussian groups. The Daughters of the American Revolution raised $500,000. A disabled-veterans group raised $1 million. Former employees of Bell Telephone raised $3 million. Employees from the State Farm Insurance Company raised $1 million. So did employees at Chrysler. Los Angeles threw in $50,000.

The post office printed commemorative twenty-two-cent stamps, introducing them at New York’s Federal Hall, where George Washington had taken the nation’s first presidential oath. To mark the occasion, the USPS arranged to remove forty pounds of copper from the statue, and had it melted and formed into two fifteen-inch replicas. The replicas were shipped to Cape Canaveral, loaded onto the space shuttle Discovery, removed from the land of liberty and the land of gravity, and then shipped back to New York, where one was melted down yet again into Official Centennial Seals, and the other now resides in the museum in the pedestal of the statue.

Ultimately, Iacocca’s campaign raised $277 million ($1.4 billion in today’s dollars) and threw it at a three-hundred-foot-tall metal object on an island on the windy, rainy, salty, humid Atlantic Coast.

It took three months, and $2 million, to erect the scaffolding around the Statue of Liberty. Engineers had considered bamboo scaffolding, Asian style, and also considered a pyramid. They considered a lattice anchored by cables, like a suspension bridge. They settled on a grid of all new aluminum poles, coated in zinc, to prevent the metal from staining the copper. It weighed three hundred tons and used two miles of half-inch steel cable, and was strong enough to support the statue’s right arm, and able to withstand winds of up to one hundred miles per hour. By April 1984, you could climb up, lean forward, and give the statue a kiss.

On July 4, the old torch was removed and lowered to the ground. Seven months later, it was on the lead float in the Tournament of Roses Parade, with Miss America. It had been escorted to the airport by the NYPD, and shipped to California in a special container, then guarded by Park Service rangers. No rusty bird cage has ever been treated so well.

Workers on the scaffolding got a close look at the exterior of the statue, and discovered many surprises that received less fanfare. They found graffiti: a B from Bartholdi, some names of the men who’d worked on the statue in 1937, and, on the big toe, the inscription “Alone with God and the Statue, Christmas Eve.” Drummond had left no John Hancock. They found bird nests in the folds of the statue’s robe, with masses of guano dating from the nineteenth century. This they scraped away. They found torn rivets that looked like dimples, and tears in the copper, and stains where coal tar and paint had oozed through the seams. There were paint spatters on the back of the statue’s arm, and a dark splotch on her back, either from Liberty Island’s trash incinerator, or from acid rain. Significant pieces at the bottom of the statue’s hair curls were missing, having corroded away. She had scabs, symptoms of “bronze plague,” on her crown rays. There were cracks in her left eye, in her lips, in her nose, and in her chin. She had a big stain on the front of her neck, almost like drool. She had rust boogers. The condition of her skin was so bad that the French-American Committee proposed coating all of it in clear resin, a suggestion that Bartholdi had made ninety-four years earlier. Instead, damaged sections—almost 2 percent of the statue’s surface area—were fixed as required with new copper. The hole in her bicep was patched, and her spike readjusted a few degrees.

Inside the statue, repairs were more difficult. The lead paint, coal tar, and disintegrated asbestos had to be removed before anything could be done to the copper. Men in white suits spent two weeks removing the paint by freezing it off with liquid nitrogen. Once frozen, it flaked off in sheets. Union Carbide showed them how to do it, waving magic wands. It took three weeks, and 3,500 gallons of liquid nitrogen. To remove the paint from the iron frame, a company called Blast and Vac was summoned. It invented what looks like a giant electric toothbrush. “Basically,” a company rep described, “we installed a standard blasting nozzle inside a vacuum cleaner head.” But still, the coal tar remained. The coal tar was more stubborn, reacting as it had with various corrosion products. Sandblasting would have removed it, but also would have damaged the copper, which was only 3/32 of an inch thick. Same for most other abrasives, and most solvents. Engineers tried blasting samples of copper with cherry pits, ground corncobs, plastic pellets, walnut shells, powdered glass, salt, rice, and sugar, to no avail. Finally, without consulting the Park Service’s corrosion consultant, none other than Robert Baboian, the Park Service settled on sodium bicarbonate: baking soda. Arm & Hammer reassured the NPS that it wouldn’t damage the copper, and donated forty tons of it.

Since late 1983, Baboian had visited the statue dozens of times; climbed all over her. By the time he showed up in January 1985, baking soda was caked inches thick inside the statue and was leaking out through many holes. Workers had blasted it at 60 psi (pounds per square inch) all over the coal tar. On the inside, it was reacting with the copper, and turning it blue; on the outside, it was destroying the patina, and dramatically staining the statue in places. It was a disaster, even if it removed the coal tar. “It was a big mistake,” Baboian told me. “It did a job on the outside of the statue.” Arm & Hammer claimed the baking soda “did not harm the copper” but admitted there were some “unexpected results.” Immediately, the inside of the statue got a wash with mild vinegar, and the outside received a daily shower until the baking soda was gone. The blue tint went away in a few weeks, but the stains remain, because it takes about thirty years for the patina to fully form.

Baboian knew a lot about the patina. Wisely, he compared the thickness of the exposed copper to a spot where some of the black coal tar had oozed out and covered it, thus protecting it from both sides, and determined the rate at which the copper was corroding. It was vanishing at a rate of .0013 millimeters per year. At that pace, he figured it’d last a thousand years. The patina on the dark patches on the statue, Baboian found, were a mineral called antlerite, rather than brochantite, and it was anywhere from one half to one tenth as thick. Thomas Graedel and John Franey, at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, in New Jersey, furthered his research, and took nine samples of copper from the statue, and seven samples from similar copper roofs at their office, and examined the patina’s growth, depth, formation, cementation, and erosion. Using mass spectrometry and X-ray diffraction, they found chlorine trapped inside the patina, which was bad news. Chlorine has an insatiable appetite for metals. But they also determined that the patina didn’t erode as long as the pH of rain or fog was above 2.5. In fact, they found that patina growth was twice as rapid as it had been a century before. They also matched a sample of the copper in the statue with a sample of copper from the Visnes mine, on Norway’s Karmoy Island, and put to rest the debate about the source of her metal.

Baboian (who had run Texas Instruments’s corrosion laboratory) also studied the interaction between the copper and the iron frame. The statue, he determined, “was an ideal configuration for galvanic corrosion.” On account of the copper, the iron was corroding one hundred times faster than it would by itself. Worse, because the surface area of the copper was so large compared with that of the iron, corrosion was sped up another tenfold. The interaction also retarded the corrosion of the copper, which is what formed the green patina. As Martha Goodway, a historian at the Smithsonian Institution, later wrote, “the structural design of the statue was innovative, but the materials chosen to realize this design were not.” Had the statue been built only a decade later, steel, rather than wrought iron, would have been used, and the story would be different.

So Baboian and others set about determining what type of metal to replace the iron with. In March 1984 he began testing five different alloys on a beach in North Carolina, at the LaQue Center for Corrosion Technology. Since the replacement metal had to have similar properties to iron, and be compatible with copper, he had few practical choices. He tested a plain steel, an aluminum-bronze, a copper-nickel alloy, a new alloy called ferralium, and marine-grade stainless steel, which was invented a generation after Bartholdi decided to employ iron in the statue. Because the samples were eighty feet from the shore, they corroded twenty-two times faster than they did inside the statue. After six months, Baboian had the equivalent of eleven years of corrosion to examine, and ruled out all but the ferralium and the stainless steel, which he recommended to the Park Service. Engineers then figured out that ferralium wouldn’t work, because bending it required heating it, and heating it destroyed its anticorrosive properties. Stainless steel it was.

Repairing the statue’s frame proved the most challenging task yet. The frame was in such bad condition that the notion of preservation was abandoned. The whole thing was replaced, piece by piece. That meant 1,825 unique six-foot ribs, weighing 25 pounds each, and all of the fasteners necessary to connect them to the copper: a couple of thousand U-shaped clamps, nearly four thousand bolts, and twelve thousand copper rivets. The rivets were prepatined, so that it wouldn’t appear that the Statue of Liberty had chicken pox. Because the frame was already weak, it was necessary to distribute the work, so as not to overstress the structure. The statue was divided into quadrants, from which one rib was removed at a time. Once removed, the copper was braced. The rib was brought to the metalworking shop near the base of the statue, where the torch was also being remade. There metalworkers fabricated a new rib, exactly like the old rib, by running 30,000 amps through it for five minutes, until, at 1,900 degrees, it became bendable. Once bent to the proper shape, it was quenched in water, sandblasted, labeled, wrapped up, and sent to Manhattan, where it was treated with nitric acid to re-create the outer, corrosion-resistant, patina-like layer of the metal. From removal to replacement, the process took thirty-six hours, including one hour just to manhandle the new rib back up the confines of the statue. The metalworkers worked around the clock for six months, fabricating seventy ribs a week.

Where the asbestos had been, isolating the skin from the frame, workers now used Teflon tape. Where Drummond had found gaps between the copper plates, workers now sealed the seams with silicone, kitchen style. To keep condensation from forming, a humidity-control system was installed. On the frame’s main girders, workers slathered three coats of an inorganic zinc paint that had been developed by NASA, and tested in Hawaii; Astoria, Oregon; and on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. (Because zinc is less noble than iron, it would corrode, rather than the frame, just as the iron had corroded when partnered with copper.) The manufacturer created a water-based, rather than solvent-based, version of the paint, so that fumes wouldn’t turn the statue into a giant gas tank. On top of the paint, they put a layer of epoxy, to make graffiti-removal easier. By the time engineers got to the statue’s shoulder, the preservationists had won out. The lady’s shoulder was offset by a foot and a half, and her head was offset by two feet—an assembly error. Even though the frame there was overstressed and overly flexible, engineers decided to brace it rather than rebuild it.

Finally, on July 4, 1986, a new torch was lifted into place. The torch had been meticulously designed to Bartholdi’s original plan: a solid flame, to be illuminated by lights from the outside. Instead of just copper, though, the flame was covered in gold leaf. Beneath it, the copper plates, which had been joined with 2,600 rivets, which were filled with solder and ground flush, were degreased, then chemically etched, then primed, then covered in three layers of varnish, the recipe for which dated from the eighteenth century, as on a violin. The gold was applied while the last coat was still tacky. Over the vents in the pendant below, bird screens were installed.

Take that, rust.

Reagan hailed the Statue of Liberty restoration as one of the highlights of his presidency, and as a flagship initiative on public-private partnership. Private companies had donated generators, cranes, paint, and copper, and hundreds of thousands of hours of their engineers’ time. Black & Decker donated tools, and replacement tools. John Deere donated tractors. Coca-Cola lent $500,000, interest free. Sealand donated shipping containers for storage. The Cabot Corporation donated ferralium, the Specialty Steel Institute of North America donated stainless steel, AT&T donated its prepatinated roof, and Arm & Hammer might have been wise baking a few million muffins. The Ad Council donated $50 million of airtime—the most ever allotted to one campaign. Yet some corporate relationships raised hackles. Some company executives, asked to donate materials, stipulated plaques signed by Reagan thanking them for their work. One marketer proposed removing the statue’s arm solely for publicity and admitted that he aimed to get rich on the restoration. He asked Moffitt if he wanted to resign and join his board, so he could get rich too. Another marketing group, actually hired, scammed the restoration foundation, proceeding on promotional projects—like twenty-five million boxes of Kellogg’s cereal—without approval. Objectionably, the head of the group garnered separate marketing contracts from statue sponsors including the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, U.S. Tobacco, and Time magazine. The Department of the Interior questioned his scruples. Another company offered $12 million for parts and materials removed from the statue, to be fashioned into gewgaws—a proposal that even the Park Service found undignified.

The commercialization irked many. Michael Kinsley, in the New Republic, feared that Miss Liberty was becoming a “high-priced tart.” The New York Times editorial page warned that “no restoration is worth putting a national monument on the market.” Richard Cohen, in the Washington Post, wrote that the price for the statue’s survival “should not be her virtue.” George Will saw nothing wrong. Commercialization was described in newspapers as “an insult to Emma Lazarus’s tired, poor and huddled masses,” and as “cultural sacrilege.” Even media rights became an issue, as the centennial approached. How could ABC purchase exclusive rights—for $10 million—to a celebration, on public land, of a national holiday?

That was the least of the difficulties. Philip Kleiner, of Lehrer McGovern, the construction management company, described the restoration as the “ultimate fast track project,” because every job was unique; most contractors weren’t willing to get involved, and those that thought they could do the work usually couldn’t. The chronicler of the restoration, Ross Holland, wrote that, “if Murphy’s Law ever applied to anything, it applied in spades to the Statue of Liberty restoration project.”

There were long delays, attributed to the French team, which seemed to be in no rush, and was abandoned by the Americans in August 1984. After that, the pace was hectic; construction managers, who complained about doing research and development at the same time, got their final drawings delivered on July 3, the day before the torch returned.

There were cost quibbles, after millions of dollars were wasted on a year and a half of nothing much, and another couple million was wasted on a TV special. To make up for it, an executive vice president suggested cost cutting by using plastic rather than ceramic tiles, and regular steel rather than stainless. American companies scrutinized contracts that went to foreign companies, claiming they could do the same work for a third less, and employ New Yorkers too.

But even when the work went to New Yorkers, unions bickered over turf. Though Liberty Island belongs to New York, the piers and docks belong to New Jersey, and Congressman Frank Guarini, along with the mayor of Jersey City, pushed for at least half of the labor to come from New Jersey unions. When the scaffolding was to be delivered, via boat, by a member of the carpenters’ union, the marine operating engineers’ union complained and threatened to picket the Marine Inspection Office, clogging up works at the Coast Guard. Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers battled over the electrical contract. Union 580, a New York ironworkers union, protested the granting of the torch-building to a French firm—and picketed the press conference announcing their selection. Not quite Drummond-style, they unfurled a banner, then gave the French workers hats and T-shirts featuring the number 580.

The political battling was uglier. After Iacocca denigrated Reagan’s economic policies, in the spring of 1984, rumors began circulating that he was considering a run for president as a Democrat. On Independence Day that year, when the old torch came down, Reagan snubbed Iacocca by not attending the ceremony. Instead, he went to a NASCAR race in Daytona. A year and a half later, less than a week after Iacocca announced that he’d raised the $230 million he’d hoped to, he was sacked from the commission.

By then, the restoration foundation was in trouble. In the summer of 1985, Congressman Bruce Vento, chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation, held hearings on the relationship between the foundation and the National Park Service. Vento didn’t like the authority of the foundation. He spoke on 20/20 of an “improper delegation of power,” and said that commercialization of the statue was “not unlike a whore who’s being pimped on the sidewalk.” He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the foundation seemed “a quasi government structure . . . Who the hell elected them?” There were allegations of threats, reports of the project being “in a total state of chaos.” He complained that the foundation was amassing the largest mailing list in history, and that it might be used for political purposes. He asked the US General Accounting Office (GAO), which investigates government expenditures for Congress, to audit the project.

To cap it all off, when the scaffolding was removed, and the Statue of Liberty revealed in all her glory for the first time in two and a half years, a black scar on her face drew attention. It was a streak caused by the baking soda, and only time would turn it green, but a rumor formed that the mark was from workers, who, rather than climb down the scaffolding and use the bathrooms on the ground, had urinated on her face.

No other rust battle in America has been fought so visibly, contentiously, or been celebrated so grandly. On July 4, 1986, millions of people showed up for the centennial celebration, as did 40,000 boats—including an aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth II, and more tall ships than had ever gathered together before. There were so many boats in the harbor that the Staten Island Ferry took twice as long as normal to weave through them. Queens and Staten Island made available 10,000 camping spots. Bleachers were erected. Governors Island became the VIP island, where the Secretary of the Navy sat. On Liberty Island, Walter Cronkite performed as the master of ceremonies, and Nancy Reagan cut a ribbon. Moffitt sat there. Baboian sat there with his wife. Long-haired Ed Drummond was not invited, even though he had forced Moffitt to take a close look at the statue with binoculars, then announced, in bold red letters that needed little poetic interpretation, that liberty was framed. Nobody ever thanked him.

The evening before the big celebration, Cardinal John O’Connor held an ecumenical mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. That day, Chief Justice Warren Burger swore in 250 new US citizens on Ellis Island. The Boston Pops played in New Jersey. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra played in Central Park. Events were held at the Meadowlands. Sinatra didn’t show up. The weekend alone cost just under $40 million. So many visitors flocked to the statue, and were forced to stand in such long lines, that a riot almost ensued. Almost a third of the world’s population saw the ceremony on TV.

As Grover Cleveland had shown up on a boat for the dedication a hundred years earlier, that’s how President Reagan planned to arrive. He wanted to show up aboard the USS John F. Kennedy and “relight” the torch with a laser beam. Instead, he performed the ceremony from Governors Island. In any case, the achievement was no less triumphant than it had been a century before; in both cases, the Statue of Liberty exemplified the greatest fusion of engineering and art of the day. The occasion was followed by the largest fireworks show ever—twenty tons of fireworks, launched from forty barges, by a pyrotechnics partnership called the All-American Fireworks Team.

That may be the best symbol of all: planned oxidation, commemorating defeated oxidation. Which makes you wonder: had people known about the rust battle, would the celebration have been even grander? What’s more impressive: liberty or engineering? Philosophy or power? Belief or might? History or science? From the metal’s point of view, there was nothing democratic going on. The metal had become part of a totalitarian regime, planned, controlled, observed, denied the opportunity to do what it yearned most to do. It would be a strange thing to celebrate the metal’s fate. Better to focus on the fireworks.

Today, a plaque, installed by the National Association of Corrosion Engineers, marks the site. Below the NACE logo—a triangle within a circle, with two fig leaves around it—there’s this text:

















OCTOBER 28, 1986



It is a unique plaque, marking the only National Corrosion Restoration Site in the country. But it won’t be the last.

About The Author

Elizabeth Riley

A Ted Scripps Fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado, Jonathan Waldman grew up in Washington, DC, studied environmental science and writing at Dartmouth, and earned a master’s degree from Boston University’s Knight Center for Science Journalism in 2003. He has spent the last decade writing creatively about science, culture, and politics for Outside, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, and others. Rust is his first book. He lives in Colorado.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 2016)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451691603

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Raves and Reviews

“Jonathan Waldman’s first book, Rust, sounds like a building code violation. But don’t let that fool you. This look at corrosion—its causes, its consequences, and especially the people devoted to combating it—is wide-ranging and consistently engrossing. Mr. Waldman makes rust shine. . . . At one point, a canning executive hostile to Mr. Waldman’s questions tells him rust is ‘a silly subject to write about.’ It is a testament to Mr. Waldman’s skill and perseverance that this book proves that man so thoroughly wrong.” —Gregory Cowles, The New York Times

“Compelling . . . Mr. Waldman does a masterful job of interweaving elements of the science and technology.” —Henry Petroski, The Wall Street Journal

“Engrossing . . . Brilliant . . . Waldman’s gift for narrative nonfiction shines in every chapter. . . . Watching things rust: who would have thought it could be so exciting!” —Natural History

“It never sleeps, as Neil Young noted: Rust is too busy wrecking our world. The relentless, destructive process has downed planes, sunk ships, crashed cars, dissolved priceless artifacts, and committed countless other crimes of corrosion. Waldman uses our long war with the iron oxide . . . [to] offer fascinating insights into our endless battle with the dreaded four-letter word.” Discover

“Lively . . . Don’t be put off by the subtitle, The Longest War. Waldman has embarked on the opposite of a slog.” The Atlantic

“Fascinating . . . Waldman attends ‘Can School,’ interviews rust experts, and visits the Alaska pipeline, among other adventures, to illuminate the myriad attacks rust makes on our daily lives. In doing so, he adds luster to a substance considered synonymous with dullness.” Scientific American

“Arresting . . . A book of nonstop eye-opening surprises . . . Brilliantly written and fascinating.” Booklist

“A mix of reporting and history lesson that never gets boring . . . Impossible to put down.” Men’s Journal

“The story of corrosion is in some ways the story of Western civilization—the outsized ambitions, the hubris and folly, the eccentric geniuses and dreamer geeks who changed the world. What a remarkable, fascinating book this is. The clarity and quiet wit of Waldman’s prose, his gift for narrative, his zeal for reporting and his eye for detail, these things and more put him in a class with John McPhee and Susan Orlean.” —Mary Roach, author of Stiff, Bonk, and Gulp

“In this remarkable book, Jonathan Waldman takes one of our planet’s oldest, most everyday—and most dangerously corrosive—chemical reactions and uses it as the starting point for a literary odyssey. Part adventure, part intellectual exploration, part pure fun, it will make you see both rust and life on earth in a new way.” —Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook

"It is often said that in the Future we will live in the Cloud. That’s a good reason to love rust. A silent rebuke to the hype of the modern, it never stops its good work of blunting the cutting edge. But you don’t have to be a reactionary to love Rust: The Longest War, as I did. Jonathan Waldman weaves together cultural history with a history of the stuff on which culture is built, showing how the drama of human striving and renewal are inescapably tied to limit and decay." —Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft

“Waldman is a bright and curious companion in this lively adventure in search of the scourge of rust and its ingenious opponents.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Lively . . . A detailed, fun read with a valuable reminder that every seemingly irrelevant item we take for granted each day is front and center for someone else.” —Publishers Weekly

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