It began with the ringing of church bells and the blowing of factory whistles.
The moment had arrived when the train rolled into Mechanicsburg carrying a cherished symbol of freedom on an open gondola.
Just as the railroad cars pulled into the depot, “a grand shout went up from every throat” as a crowd estimated at 2,000 witnessed the spectacle. A reporter with The Daily Journal, the local newspaper, chronicled the visit of the Liberty Bell that Jan. 6, 1902.
“As usual, on occasions of this kind, Mechanicsburg did itself proud and turned out in great numbers to pay a tribute to the greatest relic of the Revolutionary days,” the unnamed journalist wrote.
He mentioned how the combination of sound from all the sources made a “pandemonium of noise that could have been heard for miles.”
Liberty in the valley
There was excitement throughout the land as the special train hauling the bell made stops along the Cumberland Valley Railroad at Mechanicsburg, Carlisle and Shippensburg.
Normally based in Philadelphia, the relic was on its way to an exhibition in Charleston, South Carolina. The railroad ran west from Harrisburg to the Franklin County line where it turned south for the Scotland School, Chambersburg, Greencastle and Hagerstown.
“The train was a special one composed of eight different cars and a specially built gondola in the center of which was placed the Liberty Bell,” The Daily Journal reported.
The engines and gondola were trimmed with patriotic bunting, and the bell was guarded by four members of the Philadelphia police department – “all of whom were over 6 feet in height.”
With the train came an entourage of officials including Samuel Ashbridge, mayor of Philadelphia, and a number of city council members and influential residents.
The schedule called for a 15-minute layover in Mechanicsburg. Burgess J.O. Saxton introduced Ashbridge, who made a brief address “referring to the bell as a great teacher of patriotism and calling on one and all to teach the children to be patriotic.”
School children were marched to the depot in step to the beat of drums and lined up along the north side of the tracks. “Everybody had a good view of the relic, and a number of children of youthful years were placed alongside of the bell and had their pictures taken,” the reporter wrote.
Hundreds of booklets detailing the history of the bell were distributed during this brief ceremony, which ended with a chorus of cheers from the crowd.
On to Carlisle
The train moved west, slowing down somewhat in towns like New Kingstown so that residents living there could at least catch of glimpse of history in motion.
The bell arrived promptly at noon on the Square in Carlisle where it was greeted by an immense crowd, The Sentinel newspaper reported. “About 1,500 school children carrying flags occupied the southern side of the square near the monument and about 700 Indian boys and girls also reviewed the relic.”
At the time, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was in operation on the campus of Carlisle Barracks. The school had a band of native children who played the national anthem while other youths sang patriotic songs.
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“Enthusiasm ran high,” The Sentinel reported. “The crowd surged against the car, and on all sides for a considerable distance the throng was so dense that it was impossible to penetrate it.
“A number of little folks were handed up to the car that they might sit for an instant on the bell,” the news story read. “Enthusiastic patriotic boys wildly climbed up the car that they might simply touch the historic relic, which in 1776 proclaimed to the world that people were to be given freedom and that submission to tyranny on the part of any nation was a thing of the past.”
Burgess Harry G. Brown introduced Ashbridge, who expressed his pleasure at being in an historic town like Carlisle. The city mayor also praised the work of the Indian School.
“He wanted all to feel that the bell did not belong exclusively to Philadelphia, nor to Pennsylvania, but to the whole United States,” The Sentinel reported. “Dr. Shoemaker of Philadelphia, who graduated from Dickinson College in the class of ’72, was also introduced. He referred to Carlisle as the great educational center of southern Pennsylvania.
“Beautiful souvenirs were distributed from the train in the shape of pamphlets, badges, etc.,” the article reads. “The train moved down the valley promptly at 12:25 amid the cheering of the populace and passed through almost solid walls of humanity for two blocks.”
The Sentinel mentioned how the Liberty Bell was fastened securely on its wooden frame. Heavy strands of copper had been wrapped around the clapper to prevent it from swaying into the side of the bell during transit.
As the train moved through Newville, it was greeted by factory whistles and a cheering public. “Here a drum corps played patriotic airs, and a member of the party took great delight in lifting tots to a seat on the bell while their pictures were taken,” The Sentinel reported.
The train arrived in Shippensburg around 1 p.m. greeted by a crowd of between 1,500 and 2,000 residents who had gathered along Railroad Street from Main to Orange Street.
At one point, it stopped for five minutes in front of the Cumberland Valley State Normal School, the precursor to the modern day Shippensburg University. There the college students, along with pupils from the local public schools, were given the opportunity to have a good view of the Liberty Bell.
After leaving the Normal School, the Liberty Bell train steamed slowly into the town where it was greeted with “the shouts and huzzahs of the populace,” The Shippensburg News reported. “The train pulled past the station and stopped beyond Orange Street where the car was surrounded by the throng.”
Once again, Ashbridge gave a short speech, but the crowd was distracted by the presence of the bell and by the short 15-minute window that it had in Shippensburg.
“Scores of little children were lifted to the car and permitted to touch it or bump against it as some did,” The Shippensburg News reported. “Thousands of school children throughout the Cumberland Valley can now proudly say they viewed the old bell which proclaimed liberty to the American people.”
Seventy-four years later, The Sentinel published a front-page story on the 1902 visit by the Liberty Bell. It was 1976 and the country was gearing up for the bicentennial.
The article mentioned how the bell had an unfortunate history. First cast in London at the request of the colonial assembly, it cracked when rung for the first time in Philadelphia in 1752.
The bell was recast in 1853, but eventually cracked again. Prior to its 1902 trip to Charleston, the bell had made journeys to the World’s Industrial and Cotton Exposition in New Orleans in 1884 and 1885; the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895.