When the Montana Historical society received an email from a Pennsylvania woman asking if her grandfather’s statue still sat atop the Montana State Capitol, everyone was a bit surprised.
They knew that there was a statue atop the Capitol Dome, of course. The elegant, 12 feet tall copper-plated beauty is hard to miss. She has stood sentinel over the city since 1901, calmly gazing out across the valley, a shield in her left hand, a torch in her right. Like the rest of the Capitol, she is neoclassical, draped in elegant, vaguely Grecian robes and holding a laurel wreath.
So everyone knew she was there. What they didn’t know was who she was or where she came from. The enigmatic figure simply arrived at the Helena train station as the Capitol was being constructed, with a short note indicating that she was intended to grace the Dome. The builders placed her atop the Dome, christened her “The Goddess of Liberty”, and there she has stood ever since.
Okay, the full story is slightly less mysterious (and definitely more Montanan) than that. The first committee to construct the Capitol was formed in 1895. But within two years the committee was exposed for planning to construct a shoddy building and embezzle the money. The committee was disbanded in 1897, and someone destroyed all of the committee’s records. A new committee was formed and had to start entirely from scratch. So, when the “The Goddess of Liberty” showed up, it was clear that she had been commissioned and (since no bill ever arrived) paid for by the first committee. The mystery was, who made her?
That riddle remained unsolved until 2006 when Alice Nagle of Hatfield, Pa. was cleaning out her parent’s attic and came across a trunk belonging to her grandfather, the Belgian-born sculptor Edward Van Landeghem (1865-1955), which contained a newspaper clipping from 1902 with a picture of Edward and the statue and an article, in which Edward said that he had named the statue “Montana” and that it was among his favorite pieces.
Edward’s creation graces the Capitol still, but now we call her “Montana,” the name that has always been hers.
For more on Southwest Montana’s towering female statues, check out Is that a Giant Lady? As well as this article about Jeanette Rankin, who has identical statues in the Montana and US Capitols, created by Montana artist Terri Mimnaugh.