By the early twentieth century the Liberty Bell was considered a symbol of patriotism by many Americans, but it did not become a unifying national symbol until World War I. In an effort to increase public support and prepare for “the war to end all wars,” President Woodrow Wilson, former President Theodore Roosevelt, and other political leaders arranged for the Liberty Bell to tour the nation in the summer of 1915. Nearly one quarter of the entire population witnessed, or attempted to see, the treasured national relic during the tour. From July 5 to November 25, 1915, the bell made 275 official stops across thirty states, including twenty-eight stops in Texas over four days. It attracted record-setting crowds at the cities and towns on the route, and the Liberty Bell Special, as the train was called, often slowed down in between stops to allow better views for those who gathered along the tracks.
By the summer of 1915 the United States was increasingly divided over a variety of social and political issues that led to backlash in the East against Jewish and German immigrants from Europe. Meanwhile, Native Americans across the Great Plains and Asian Americans in the West fought for equality and inclusion. The Deep South maintained Jim Crow laws and a system of segregation, and the premiere of D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915) reflected those prejudices. In the midst of these challenges and as World War I raged in Europe, American leaders sought to bring unity, patriotism, and increased public engagement among the American populace. The Liberty Bell tour in 1915 fostered a patriotic awakening of sorts and laid the groundwork for the bell’s critical role, beginning in spring 1917, as the driving force behind nationwide war bond drives for the war effort.
San Francisco Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph was the strongest advocate of bringing the Liberty Bell to visit California during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. His suggestion raised concerns over the safety of transporting the treasured relic on such a long journey. The bell weighed 2,080 pounds, and it measured twelve feet around the lip, seven feet and six inches around the crown, and three feet from lip to crown. Pennsylvania Railroad engineers constructed an all-steel Pullman flatcar, No. 426,826, known as the Liberty Bell Special. The custom transport included a unique generator that kept the Liberty Bell illuminated throughout the night. Mayor Rolph found support from Philadelphia Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg but faced strong opposition from U.S. Senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania, who personally opposed all of Blankenburg’s initiatives. The parties initially only agreed to ring the Liberty Bell on February 11, 1915, and transmit the sound across 3,400 miles of transcontinental phone lines to the entire nation. All parties later agreed to the full tour after the sinking of the Lusitania in Europe; the passenger liner’s American victims were regarded as the first American casualties of the war. Senator Penrose, who previously opposed the entire effort, accompanied the tour from San Francisco back to Philadelphia and utilized stops to promote his political campaign.
The Liberty Bell Special departed from Broad Street Station in Philadelphia at 3 P.M. on July 5, 1915. The train consisted of six cars, which included three Pullmans, two steel baggage cars, and a dining car. The bell hung from a wooden yoke painted with the phrase “Proclaim Liberty – 1776,” and only a brass railing served as a barrier to onlookers. Guards typically limited the privilege of touching the bell to the blind but often allowed babies, toddlers, and others beyond the railing to touch or kiss the relic. The Liberty Bell had never traveled farther west than St. Louis, Missouri, and it arrived unscathed in San Francisco on July 17, 1915. The bell was displayed hanging above a priceless 400-year-old Persian rug for four months at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in the Pennsylvania Pavilion. An estimated 10,000 photos were taken per day with visitors at the exhibit. San Francisco held a massive parade on November 10, 1915, to celebrate patriotism and send the bell on a mostly southern route back to Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Just prior to entering Texas, the Liberty Bell made a stop in Deming, New Mexico, where its arrival was announced with fireworks and a “flag bomb,” which unfurled a large American flag high into the air. The two-day celebration included a parade that included the governor, National Guard, decorated floats, and automobiles. On November 16 the Liberty Bell Special departed from Deming at 1:58 P.M. and arrived at El Paso at 3:40 P.M., more than an hour later than expected. El Paso held its own two-day celebration—the highlight of which was the arrival of the Liberty Bell. The bell was greeted by 5,000 troops who gathered in El Paso along with five batteries of artillery that fired a thirteen-gun salute. Nearly 50,000 people viewed the relic while the Liberty Bell Special parked in the G. H. Yards between Kansas and Stanton streets. It overstayed in El Paso by twenty-five minutes, but left at 5:18 P.M. bound for Marfa.
The train arrived almost three hours late, at 2:15 A.M. the morning of November 17, in Alpine, where about 2,000 people awaited despite the delay. The bell then made five-minute stops in Sanderson and Del Rio. Nearly 60,000 people gathered in San Antonio to see the Liberty Bell Special parked along Grand Avenue between Avenue C and Avenue D. To mark the occasion the Liberty Bell Shriners of Ben Hur Temple held a ceremonial session in the afternoon and hosted a banquet in the evening.
The bell was delayed by more than two hours when it arrived at the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Depot in New Braunfels after 4:00 P.M. for a five-minute stop. All the businesses temporarily closed to allow employees to participate in the reception. Local schools dismissed the students, who gathered at the depot alongside nearly 4,000 people to witness the patriotic relic and hear the New Braunfels Band. Businesses in San Marcos closed for an hour, and a crowd of 5,000 gathered from nearby towns such as Lockhart, Fentress, Luling, and Prairie Lea.
The event in Austin attracted nearly 15,000 people to the intersection of Brazos and Fourth streets. The train arrived at 6:10 P.M., but the illuminated flatcar allowed the crowd to easily see the relic. Mayor A. P. Wooldridge introduced Chief Justice Nelson Phillips of the Texas Supreme Court as the featured orator. School children were encouraged to view the historic relic, but officials segregated African American children on the west side of Brazos Street between Fourth and Fifth streets.
The Liberty Bell Special made short stops in Georgetown, Granger, Bartlett, and Temple on its way north. The train arrived in Waco at 11:45 P.M., almost two hours late. Nonetheless, a crowd of at least 15,000 waited in the cold. The Liberty Bell Special arrived two hours late to Hillsboro at around 2 A.M. on November 18, where nearly a thousand people had assembled earlier in the day for speeches, music, and military drills, but the crowd dwindled to just a few hundred after midnight.
The city of Whitewright paid to send 128 people, mostly school children, aboard the Katy Special to Denison to see the Liberty Bell on the morning of November 18. The bell then arrived in Whitesboro at 9:45 A.M. from Denison, just two hours late. A trainload of school children and citizens from Gainesville joined several thousand people in Whitesboro to see the bell.
The Texas and Pacific Railroad ran special trains into Fort Worth from West and Northeast Texas. Smaller cities, such as Cleburne, sent representative groups of school children and adults to see the Liberty Bell. Texas Christian University granted a half-holiday to allow the faculty and students to attend the event, which included a grand parade. For the parade, the university’s fine arts department created and entered two floats that depicted the nation’s colonial, revolutionary, and modern periods, including a nod to the national college sport of football. As a result, the largest gathering in Texas along the tour occurred in Fort Worth when an estimated 75,000 people viewed the bell as it traveled up and down Main Street. After a three-hour delay, the Liberty Bell reached Fort Worth at 12:45 P.M. on November 18, but the stop frustrated many onlookers by only lasting one hour. Behind the bell, the parade followed and included Confederate and Grand Army of the Republic veterans, school children, and thirty-three floats that depicted scenes from the nation’s history. Seventeen floats were provided by public schools with the remainder from private schools, colleges, and individuals. Senator Boies Penrose proclaimed that the parade in Fort Worth was the “finest spectacle that the Philadelphia party accompanying the bell had seen” on the tour.
Local editor and Texas State Historical Association member William A. Bowen led a crowd of 3,000 in Arlington to see the Liberty Bell during a short stop. The Arlington Printing Company sold souvenir postcards with the name and date of each city in Texas visited by the bell. A small civil disturbance occurred when an attendant allowed a young African American girl to kiss the Liberty Bell for a photograph. A few members of the crowd responded with racist comments and violence toward other African Americans but were restrained by law-abiding citizens.
The Liberty Bell Special was far behind schedule when it arrived in Dallas at 2:30 P.M. for a four-hour stop. The Houston and Texas Central and the Texas and New Orleans ran excursion trains to allow for several thousand people to travel to the event, and heavy interurban traffic between Denison and Dallas caused early morning delays as large delegations of school children and adults on holiday traveled to see the bell. Among the thousands of attendees (one newspaper, the Cleburne Morning Review, reported the number as high as 80,000) was Col. Lucius J. Polk of Sherman, a direct descendant of Col. William Polk of North Carolina, who accompanied the bell in 1777 on a journey to safeguard the relic in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The train departed Dallas at 7 P.M., which delayed the remaining stops in Texas.
The Liberty Bell was expected in Corsicana at 3:30 P.M., but it did not arrive until nearly 8:40 P.M. and stayed for only fifteen minutes. Hundreds of local students and orphans assembled at the Odd Fellows building at North Beaton Street and West Third Avenue at 4 P.M. to march in a parade. Judge Rufus Hardy delivered a short speech, and the fire department entertained the crowd with a display of daytime fireworks. Only a few hundred people stayed into the evening to see the bell.
The original itinerary had scheduled the Liberty Bell for a five-minute stop in Bremond at 5:35 P.M. and a three-minute stop in Calvert at 6:07 P.M., but the train was more than five hours late.
The Liberty Bell arrived in Bryan at 12:45 A.M., about six hours behind schedule, to an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 300 people, who were all given an opportunity to touch the relic. Onlookers in College Station expected the bell at 7:12 P.M. for a three-minute visit, but it arrived well past midnight in the early morning hours of November 19; it then made a five-minute stop in Navasota at almost 2 A.M.
The Liberty Bell Special pulled into Grand Central Station in Houston at 3:30 A.M., nearly six hours late. A crowd of 40,000 diminished to only 2,000 people, nearly half of which were school children, who endured the cold to see the relic. Professor P. W. Horn, the superintendent of public schools and Mayor Ben Campbell were scheduled to address the crowd along with the Sunset band of the Fifth Ward providing music. The bell departed after an hour and a half and was bound for Beaumont, the final stop in Texas. The train arrived in Beaumont around 6 A.M., which was about four hours past the original time on the itinerary.
The Liberty Bell Special finally returned to Philadelphia about 4 P.M. on November 25, 1915, following dozens of additional stops in Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey. A military delegation escorted the bell to Independence Hall, where it was replaced into the glass case. During the 143-day tour across the United States, the bell traveled nearly 17,000 miles across thirty states and was viewed by an estimated twenty million people. The tour of 1915 was only the eighth time the Liberty Bell traveled outside of Philadelphia since the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.