The sculpture is the Admission Day Monument, unveiled in 1897 commemorating the day that California became the 31st state in the union, on September 9, 1850. The sculpture’s central figure is an armed miner waving an American flag, and two animals are depicted on the eastern and western sides of the base of the monument.
There’s a bear, represented by its head in the form of a fountain, and an octopus, sitting in a basin at the very bottom of the statue. The bear is also depicted on the California state flag, ever since the 1846 version of the flag, but the significance of the octopus is unknown. It may be tied to California dominating America’s Pacific coastline, or have something to do with the fishing industry. Perhaps the tentacles represent the reach of the American railroad.
In any case the mysterious octopuses, each about 12 square inches, are unfortunate victims of vandals, some of whom may believe they are made of pure copper and attempt to steal them. The heads of the octopuses tend to be crushed and their tentacles mangled. In 2007, the western facing octopus was removed for about five months and was taken to a foundry to be repaired. It was returned in August of that year.
At the top of the column behind this man is an angel, supposedly modeled after sculptor Douglas Tilden’s wife. An inscription reads, “The unity of the Empire hangs on the decision of this day.” There is no mention of the octopus’s role in that historic occasion.
It appears as though at some point in the monument’s past it was a fountain. The bowls under the bear heads would have been full of potable water. The basins with the octopuses would have held water for dogs to drink from.