If Americans are asked to list items which are the mental images and physical representations of freedom, one item which most people can easily think of is the beloved and historic Liberty Bell.
Many Americans can instantly picture in their minds that huge bell with its famous defect and with its well-known Biblical inscription from the book of Leviticus: “PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGH ALL THE LAND AND TO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF LEV XXV X).” The records are not clear, but the bell was probably rung at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 8, 1776, some 23 years after it was cast.
Throughout the course of its existence, the Liberty Bell has seldom been out of its hometown. In 1915, there was a major exception. In that year, the symbol of freedom made a cross-country tour which passed through Effingham County and allowed the citizens of this area personally to experience the historic artifact.
The occasion was “The Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” the 1915 World’s Fair, held in San Francisco, California. This event was a grand project which took over three years to construct. Officially, the exposition was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, and to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean. The fair organizers diligently sought to have the Liberty Bell displayed as a major attraction. To accomplish this, some 500,000 California school children signed a petition asking the Mayor of Philadelphia to permit the bell to be part of the exposition. With the request in hand, a special delegation led by a Mrs. Emma Doane, traveled to the city of brotherly love to ask Mayor Blankenburg to fulfill the youngsters’ dream.
But that was not an easy task to complete. Because the crack in the bell had been slowly expanding, there was fear that in a long journey, the historic antique might split in two. It was with reluctance, therefore, that the City of Philadelphia agreed to permit the precious relic to leave on July 2, 1915, for the great West-coast event, where it would remain until Nov. 11 of that year, when it started home again. A party of 26 City of Philadelphia councilmen accompanied the Bell on its cross-country journey as the train followed somewhat of a northern route traversing Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana. Illinois (stopping in Chicago), Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California.
The Bell was well protected, of course, with policemen from the Philadelphia traffic squad guarding the symbol of liberty until it returned to its home. There was also a special military escort — the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry, the organization which had escorted George Washington on state functions when the capital of the United States had been in Philadelphia. A very practical protective measure consisted of the installation of shock absorbers on the flat car which carried the bell to prevent it from being jolted. In addition, the train crews were specially picked for their carefulness and ability in starting and stopping trains. The engineer also maintained a safe speed limit across the country as travel was maintained at not less than 15 miles per hour nor more than 35 mph.
The whole occasion was a great opportunity for Americans to see the great bronze bell. During the daylight hours, great crowds lined the tracks to get a glimpse. Even cities traversed in the night were able see it due to the fact that a system of illumination had been devised to provide a blaze of light on the bell as it passed through during hours of darkness.
For the time period, the trip was an expensive one. Sending the bell to California cost the city of Philadelphia approximately $75,000. The expense was that great even with the committee of 26 councilmen paying their own expenses.
Before the Liberty Bell returned to Philadelphia following the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, it made another California appearance. This time at San Diego. When it arrived in that city, local officials declared a “Liberty Bell Day” and the Bell was grandly escorted to a special exhibition where it remained until Nov. 15 when it was placed on the return train to Philadelphia. It was on the Bell’s 10-day journey back to the East Coast that it came through Effingham County. The route eastward was more southerly in nature than the trek westward had been. The patriotic symbol journeyed through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and, finally, Pennsylvania.
After receiving a marvelous welcome and then send-off in St. Louis, where more than 100,000 people paid homage, the Liberty Bell traveled into Illinois. It made numerous stops. Everywhere the welcome was the same — great excitement, great patriotic feelings filled the air. A Greenville newspaper reported that: “FIVE THOUSAND GREET LIBERTY BELL AT DEPOT.” There were many children among the vast throng gathered at the depot on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 21, 1915. In preparation for the occasion, several local ministers preached patriotic sermons and in some cases even dismissed services earlier than usual so the church members would be at the station on time. Fortunately for them, the train was a bit late arriving at 1:06 p.m. rather than the schedule time of 12:40. Shortly thereafter, it was on its way again so that, at 1:35, the Bell arrived at the Vandalia station. Again, nearly 5,000 were in attendance. With a band playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” a hushed crowd demonstrated an attitude almost reverent in nature. With the Bell resting on its pedestal on a flat car, the vast crowd solemnly passed and viewed with a sense of awe the magnificent piece of American history. Then the train began eastward once again, this time into Effingham County. There were stops at Altamont, Effingham and Teutopolis, where a writer for the Teutopolis Press penned:
“The old Liberty Bell which next to the original copy of the Declaration of Independence is the most valued relic of the American people passed through here Sunday afternoon on its way homeward from the Panama-Pacific Exposition at San Francisco. Many of our patriotic citizens together with the students of St. Joseph’s college, were at the station to view and salute the historic bell, and the joy and enthusiasm shown by the crowd was proof of the honor in which the relic is held by American citizens. Flags were waved and the loud shouts and hurrahs kindled again the flames of the love of the native land known to all as patriotism.
The Bell was carried on an open flat car in full view of all and was decorated with flowers and the presence of the national emblem, fitfully blowing from all four corners of the car.”
Within the hearts of those Effingham County citizens who came out in great numbers to get an eyewitness view of the great symbol of freedom, there was a spirit of pride and gratitude concerning the freedom which this nation has. By viewing the bell, they were reminded of the significance of America’s Declaration of Independence and of America’s religious roots, the source of liberty.