Recently I was visiting my Mom, and when driving into Churchill on Penn Avenue I saw a copper statue of Abraham Lincoln beside the road. I'm pretty sure that Honest Abe didn't stop in Wilkinsburg while President. Why a statue of him there? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Recently I was visiting my Mom, and when driving into Churchill on Penn Avenue I saw a copper statue of Abraham Lincoln beside the road. I'm pretty sure that Honest Abe didn't stop in Wilkinsburg while President. Why a statue of him there?

Question submitted by: Mike Connolly, Virginia Beach (formerly of Ross Township)

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To be honest, there were times when Honest Abe barely stopped in Wilkinsburg as a statue. Made in 1916 according to a design by Alfonso Pelzer, the Lincoln sculpture has been one of Pittsburgh's most mobile artworks.

 

 

According to Discovering Pittsburgh's Sculpture, by Marilyn Evert and Vernon Gay, the statue was unveiled to Wilkinsburg "during three days of festivities celebrating, in part, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company's elimination of several undesirable grade crossings." (In the days before American Idol, that's all people had to get excited about.) Speeches lauded Lincoln as "the most perfect ruler the world has ever seen," and called for the unification of Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg. (Apparently, it was easier to reunify a country divided over slavery than to merge two Allegheny County municipalities.) Most of the money for the statue had been raised by Wilkinsburg school kids, more than a thousand of whom contributed dimes to build the $700 statue.

 

In fact, the whole enterprise was a nickel-and-dime operation. The statue was made -- appropriately enough for a president immortalized on the penny -- out of copper. But its method of construction was unusual: Sheets of metal were forged into the appropriate shape by being hammered against a die. "Statues produced in this manner were of much lighter weight and less costly than the same work cast in bronze," writes Evert, who quotes the company who made the casts promising that it would "have all the appearance of a bronze statue." The statue was a life-sized depiction of the 6-foot-4-inch Lincoln, but it weighed only 80 pounds.

 

That made the statue easier to install, but it also made it easier to remove. And in May 1982, residents awoke one morning to find that Lincoln had apparently been shaken right out of his shoes: Almost the entire statue, everything from the ankles up, had disappeared

 

It took 10 months for police to find the statue: A Monroeville couple led them to a Westmoreland County farm, where they'd buried it. Underneath a bulldozer. Were they secessionists? Die-hard Democrats? It seems not. According to press accounts, the couple merely got "carried away after drinking beer" -- and the statue got carried away with them.

 

The couple paid to repair the damage and it was eventually returned to its original site. But 10 years later, in September 1992, Lincoln was knocked off his pedestal again -- not by thieves or even historical revisionists, but more likely from vibrations caused by passing traffic. Lincoln was probably the last president you'd ever accuse of being weak-kneed, but it turns out his statue's ankles were another matter: They'd snapped right off, suggesting that the repairs from his premature burial were less than permanent.

 

Lincoln didn't get far. According to press accounts, a Wilkinsburg resident found the statue in some nearby bushes and toted it to the Wilkinsburg police on a Port Authority bus. Let's just hope someone vacated their seat for the old guy.

 

For years, the Lincoln statue sat in the Wilkinsburg Borough Building, standing in the hallway holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation like it was a zoning change he couldn't get the borough council to consider. But the Wilkinsburg Historical Society undertook a campaign to have the statue repaired, and in 2002 it was returned to the intersection where you see it today. Today's statue is reinforced with a metal skeleton of steel tubing inside, which should give it more structural strength.

 

But while Lincoln is arguably in better shape than he was in 1916, you can't say the same for Wilkinsburg. In 1916, Wilkinsburg's school kids were able to raise most of the money for a $700 statue; when the Wilkinsburg Historical Society tried to get today's students interested in repairing the statue, they didn't have as much luck. According to a 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, Wilkinsburg students raised only $427.87. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to just $26.33 in 1916 dollars.

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