McKinley statue pulled from Plaza in early morning operation

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – The statue of William McKinley, a gift to the citizens of Arcata from George Zehndner, is gone from the Arcata Plaza. Where America’s 25th president once towered over the town, a circular planter – also soon to go – encloses foliage and a barren patch of concrete which once supported the statue.

City personnel and contractors assembled at 4 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 28 on a frigid Plaza, taking advantage of a brief respite from the recent rains to attempt removal.

The city has surprisingly little information to work with on the engineering details of the statue, and even of the 1990 Plaza overhaul which buried the statue’s steps under a planter. Some of the work Thursday morning was investigative, and some was exploratory and destructive. 

In recent days, a pad of grout which had been inserted under the statue’s feet to reinforce the fragile statue’s footing was removed in order to allow access to metal rods which secure the statue to its granite base. 

A quick stab to the resulting opening with a power hammer broke loose an elbow-shaped chunk of the pedestal, easing access to the statue’s moorings and readying it for liftoff.

As a massive crane rumbled loudly in front of Tavern Row, ensuring little restful sleep by Hotel Arcata guests with Plaza-facing rooms, contractors used it to place numerous sheets of steel across the mushy north Plaza lawn – a temporary road to distribute the machine’s weight and provide a secure footing for access to the Plaza’s center. 

Meanwhile, workers wrapped the statue in rubber straps, preparing it to be lifted away.

City officials on hand included Mayor Brett Watson, Councilmember Sofia Pereira, City Manager Karen Diemer, City Attorney Nancy Diamond, Environmental Services Director Mark Andre and various Parks Dept. employees, plus a small squad of Arcata Police officers, including Police Chief Brian Ahearn.

A stealthy operation

While the weather window was the ostensible reason for the early morning removal, the absence of crowds also helped minimize safety issues as heavy equipment hoisted the massive statue components high in the air. 

Any number of setbacks could have beset the project. A foreseeable one was having to manage  boisterous demonstrations by statue friends and/or foes, which could have made the unprecedented task more difficult, and with heavy equipment involved, unsafe. Risk management always weighs heavily on city decisionmakers.  

The absence of culture warriors on hand to cheer, jeer and possibly bicker or worse also simplified management of the operation. Watson and Pereira, who enjoy positive relationships with disparate segments of Arcata's advocacy community, were there to relate to anyone who might have gotten overly excited or upset about the removal.

National publicity over the statue’s removal had triggered waves of hostile, yelling-oriented phone calls to City Hall, though that sort of thing occurs more or less routinely in response to Arcata’s sometimes avant-garde politics.

Of more concern were inquiries about permits for public events concurrent with statue removal. While city officials have experience with impassioned locals, outside activists arriving to rally or demonstrate to leverage the statue removal for their ends offered rich potential for going massively, expensively and perhaps even dangerously awry.


While the city kept a tight lid on publicity about the removal, word nonetheless leaked out, with a handful of photographers turning up to record the historic event. Given the extraordinary amount of prolonged equipment noise and activity on the Plaza, it was assumed that sooner or later, a crowd would gather. 

But somehow, even after an hour-and-a-half of clangorous roadbuilding with steel plates, no one apparently posted anything online about the obvious statue-removal process underway or otherwise alerted the outside world. That kept attendance limited to city staff, contractors, the few photogs and four or five folks who happened to out on the streets in the pre-dawn darkness.  

By 5:45 a.m., the steel road to the Plaza’s center was finished, the crane moved into place and all was ready. The statue’s straps were attached to the hoist, and the massive bronze statue was gingerly lifted from its base.

“Arcataaaaataaaaa!” yelled one random witness from outside the perimeter safety tape.

Swinging gently, the statue was set down on the north side of the Plaza’s center for inspection.

In an extremely surreal maneuver, the statue of William McKinley was then lifted high over the Plaza’s north side, slowly flying in a vertical stance as it made its way to a waiting truck. It was carefully lowered in, laid down on its back, coming to rest in the truck bed with only its fingertips showing about the sides of the open-back truck.

The statue was taken to the city’s Corp Yard, where it will be prepared for shipment to Ohio.

As the skies brightened with morning light, the statue’s base was next secured and lifted. The only minor hiccup of the morning occurred when the base’s crown suddenly separated from the granite block beneath it. The two pieces were then removed separately and trucked away.

See images and video of Arcata's McKinley statue being prepared for shipment to Canton, Ohio, on March 11, 2019.

Costs and claims

Contractors on hand estimated that the statue weighed a surprisingly light 800 or so pounds. That’s because, contrary to popular assumption, it is not solid bronze. It is, in fact, a metal shell filled partially with sand to keep weight down – a not-uncommon practice with large statues. A project foreman said he rapped on the legs, and they sounded empty.

The statue’s hollow, sand-filled construction had been revealed when its thumb was stolen back in 2003. While it wasn’t openly discussed, sculptors were aware that the statue wasn’t solid metal, and that the fragile shell could easily have been toppled in short order  with simple hand tools.  

The base was estimated to weigh 8,000 to as much as 10,000 pounds. According to Diemer, the City of Canton has indicated that it has a trucking firm that should be able to provide transport within a few days notice. 

Canton’s Timken Foundation, a community philanthropy organization comparable to the local Humboldt Area Foundation, has offered $15,000 towards Arcata’s costs and, said Diemer, “all expenses from this point forward.”

Though statue-removal advocates had vowed to cover all city expenses for removal, that hasn’t yet occurred and no fundraising proceeds have been transferred to date. Such reimbursement could be a possibility once the city gets a final costing for the project, which depends of how big an offset Canton provides.

In any case, costs for the project are a single-digit fraction of the $525,000 cost projection statue defenders had cited in their Pro-Measure M ballot argument.

Diemer said that direct costs to date for the environmental studies are $9,000. Staff time and removal expenses have yet to be tallied, but she estimates them to be under $30,000 in direct costs, and well under the original $65,000 estimate, even with staff labor figured in. Removal of the planter and steps would presumably be included in the overall cost. 

Also yet to be known is the cost of Measure M, the failed ballot initiative which would have overridden the council’s Feb. 21, 2018 decision to remove the statue. A final billing hasn’t yet been received from the county Elections Division. 

Canton is known to be exultant over acquisition of the statue, and has marshaled a pool of civic resources to professionally restore the statue, select an honored site and install it there. Multiple locations are under consideration. 

“We are very excited by the news and we thank the citizens of Arcata,” Canton Mayor Thomas Bernabei earlier told the Union. “We’ll provide a very, very good home.”

Mayor Watson said he was glad the statue will go somewhere it will be valued, and that he’s looking forward to planning what will go in its place.

Scathing and healing

Local feelings about the statue’s departure were as polarized and intense as they’d been over the past year. On various news websites, statue friends and foes duked it out, mingling expressions of idealism with most verbally violent rhetoric imaginable. 

Some of the comment came from afar, fanned by politically biased coverage on sites such as Commenters dismissed all of Arcata and Humboldt as morally bankrupt, intellectually illegitimate, anti-American and unworthy of inclusion in the USA.

The scathing blowback didn’t do anything to diminish the city’s pre-removal concern about outside forces becoming negatively involved in the already-risky removal operation, had they had the chance.

Thursday night following the removal, a low-key “Candle Light Gathering” took place on the statue-less Plaza.

Few to no candles were in evidence, though statue opponents seemed warmed by inner satisfaction at having vanquished their despised bronze nemesis. 

Anti-statue advocate Erik Yahmo Ahqha Rydberg noted that 67 percent of Arcata voters had affirmed that the statue was no longer needed or wanted on the town Plaza. Rydberg noted that the 1906 City Council had accepted the statue without any public vote. He lamented the expense of Measure M, and the arduous activism that it took to ensure its defeat. “It’s bittersweet in a way,” he said.

One man at the Plaza’s center held up a large, hand-lettered sign that read, “McKinleyville Lives Matter. Arcata did the wrong thing. You Are All Going to HeLL.” 

He said that the sign was a satire, but that it would have been better to make the statue removal a part of a festival.  

“I think they shouldn’ta taken it at 3 a.m., all sneaky-like,” he said. “I was born in Arcata and I like Arcata and I like the statue.”

In a possible initial glimmer of the new era of healing and unity that some statue opponents said would be possible after its removal, the signholder and Rydberg stood together amicably for a photograph.

But that was only the beginning, according to Union Facebook page commenter Indigo Mcginnis. “It actually does take a long time, even generations...” she said.



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