The Unlikley Story Behind Williamsburg’s Washington Statue

(Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives)

These last bone-chilling, frigid days have been hard to bear, but these freezing days have reminded me of the horrible cold the Continental Army endured during the darkest moments of the revolution and of a unique local statue that captures Washington’s suffering during that freezing winter. Situated in Continental Army Plaza, right near Roebling Street’s entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge, the Equestrian Statue of George Washington at Valley Forge is decidedly the most impressive piece of public sculpture in North Brooklyn. Perhaps the only thing that can rival the awe the statue inspires is the incredible story of how an honest politician (that rare breed indeed) gifted it to the city.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle archives

The statue was dedicated in 1906, and presented to the City by local Congressman James R. Howe and the Committee of Supervision and Construction. It was sculpted by Henry Mervin Shrady, a New Yorker and Columbia University graduate, who was commissioned to make his first major public work after winning a design competition in 1901. The huge statue was cast at Roman Bronze Works on Green Street in our area and is anchored to a granite base designed by Lord and Hewlett.

Image courtesy of Ephemeral New York

Equestrian statues are quite difficult to create and cast because the huge weight of the statue must rest entirely on the horse’s legs. Shrady’s first major public sculpture not only succeeded brilliantly in this difficult task of balancing the figures, but also in creating a piece of great beauty. Shrady’s huge bronze image depicts a pensive Washington in a vulnerable pose of worried contemplation, shrouded in an overcoat that still does not protect him entirely from the severe cold. It is completely different than other equestrian sculptures of Washington that show him triumphant. Shrady depicts the Commander in Chief during the six-month period from December 1777 to June 1778 when the Continental Army was encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania between Philadelphia, where the British were stationed, and York, the temporary seat of the Continental Congress. Though the winter took a terrible toll, with an estimated one-fourth of the 10,000 soldiers perishing, the army survived thanks to Washington’s heroic leadership.

The story of How acquired the $50,000 to gift the statue to the city is worth telling. In the days before municipal reform some Kings County officials were not paid a salary, but earned their money from huge fees. For years, the registrar, county clerk and sheriff of Kings County became very wealthy on the lucrative fees they raked in from their jobs. The fees could earn office holders a staggering $75,000 a year, a massive income at the time and a strong inducement for corruption in getting and holding these lucrative positions.

Congressman Howe for years had advocated abolishing the fee system and replacing it with a fixed salary, much to the disgust of the political machines that saw these jobs as political plums that blocked his efforts to end the corrupt fee system. Finally, Howe grew so fed up that he announced his own candidacy for Brooklyn Registrar, which he won with the support of honest Brooklyn voters who were outraged by the survival of this political slush fund.

Howe collected $50,000 more than the money he believed that the registrar should earn and he tried to return these funds to the city, but there was no provision in the law for the return of the huge amount of money. Finally, Howe, a native of Williamsburg, decided to use the cash he had acquired as registrar to commission the statue. Unveiled before a crowd of 40,000 spectators, Howe’s two-year-old son pulled the covering off the figure to wild applause. Howe died in 1914 and the story of his unusual gift to the city was soon forgotten, but the imposing piece of bronze reminds us of Washington’s suffering and of an honest politician who left our area a unique artistic legacy.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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