Time Machine: The Liberty Bell

Iowa City hosted the Revolutionary War relic 100 years ago

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CEDAR RAPIDS — After an unusually wet, cold and rainy Fourth of July holiday, Eastern Iowans were excited on July 7, 1915, to see the arrival, however brief, of the Liberty Bell.

The Liberty Bell was cast in 1752 at Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. It cracked soon after being hung in Philadelphia in 1753 and was recast by John Pass and John Stowe. It rang on July 8, 1776, for the reading of the Declaration of Independence. It cracked again, irreparably, in 1835, possibly when it rang for the funeral of Chief Justice John Marshall.

When it was announced that the Liberty Bell would make a transcontinental trip from Philadelphia to San Francisco in the summer of 1915, Cedar Rapids was considered as a stop. A letter arrived April 20 from Philadelphia’s Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg by way of Ticket Agent M.H. Rizer of the Northwestern line. The Cedar Rapids Commercial Club, forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, immediately began a campaign to assure that the bell would pass through the city on the Northwestern line. On April 26, the City Council passed a resolution asking Blankenburg to route the bell through Cedar Rapids.

A campaign also began to persuade Philadelphia officials to route the bell over land via the Lincoln Highway but that idea failed to take root.

The petition that the Liberty Bell go through Cedar Rapids also failed. In late May, it was announced that the bell would go by rail on the Pennsylvania, Rock Island, C.B. & Q., Union Pacific, Oregon Short Line, Great Northern, Northern Pacific and Southern Pacific. That meant the bell would go through Iowa City, not Cedar Rapids.

Blankenburg suggested to Cedar Rapids Mayor Louis Roth that Cedar Rapidians could go to Iowa City. Many of them did.

The Liberty Bell began its eighth and longest journey since it was first hung in the old State House of the Province of Pennsylvania at sunrise July 5, 1915. Its destination was the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Millions of people had a chance to see the Revolutionary War relic during the trip, which covered more than 10,000 miles round trip before returning to a glass case in Independence Hall.

Following a celebration and parade in Philadelphia, the 12-day journey to the west coast began.

The bell was removed from its case and placed on a special hanger. It was wheeled on a truck to Independence Square. From there it was escorted by the First Brigade, Pennsylvania National Guard to the West Philadelphia train station.

The bell was mounted on a special flat car guarded by four handpicked Philadelphia policemen. They were constantly on guard. They were not allowed to drink alcohol or lose their temper. They were required to be courteous and “never fail to answer every question, however foolish.” The experienced crew was skilled at starting and stopping trains to minimize jolts to the bell.

The train consisted of a baggage car, diner, three sleepers, a car for receiving guests and the bell car, which was attached at the rear of the train. It had special shock absorbers and was surrounded by an iron railing. American flags flew from each corner and red, white and blue decorations adorned the car. The bell was hung so that the crack in its side faced the right side of the car as it headed west.

The Liberty Bell arrived in Iowa City at 1:30 p.m. July 7. It was there for 15 minutes.

The bell was never taken from the train. Cities where the train stopped were advised to build platforms the height of the flat car so that children could touch the bell. Each child was given a pamphlet with a history of the bell, an American flag, and a card and button with pictures of the bell. A small bound volume of the bell’s history was presented to the mayor. Other than that, there were no souvenirs and no commercialization of the trip.

The train arrived July 16 in San Francisco. The next day was Liberty Bell Day. Early that morning the bell was installed at the Expo’s Pennsylvania building.

It returned to Philadelphia by way of a southern route in November. The 1915 tour was its last rail journey and the last time it left Philadelphia.

In 1917, the Liberty Bell traveled by truck around Philadelphia for a Liberty Bond sale during World War I. The deteriorating condition of the bell prompted its curator to recommend that it never again be taken from its case.

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