The Liberty Bell is today housed in a pavilion near Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Tourists from around the world posed for pictures on the day in May  when I visited. Schoolchildren pressed against the velvet rope keeping them just beyond arm’s length as, wide-eyed, they heard a National Park Service ranger tell how the bell probably summoned the people for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in July, 1776. They nodded solemnly as the ranger explained how it was hidden as the British approached Philadelphia during the War of 1812. It had not yet become a national symbol, but it could have been melted down for cannonballs, she said.
I walked around the bell, looking at its famous crack and noticing how the reverent touches of tens of thousands of hands had polished parts of its surface smooth and shiny. The bell may be a simple, broken thing, but it witnessed great events in the nation’s founding. We have few links to that history in the west, and I was unexpectedly moved to tears.
In 1915, half a million California schoolchildren petitioned Philadelphia to loan the Liberty Bell for display at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco. The bell could travel by train, allowing millions of Americans to catch a glimpse as it passed.
Philadelphians agreed, and, after their own Independence Day celebrations, they bid farewell as the bell headed westward, mounted on a flatcar at the end of a six-car special. It would call at Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Ogden, Boise, and Portland, then travel down the California coast to San Francisco.
The train stopped in the largest cities for only a few hours, and in smaller towns for as little as five minutes. Wherever there were people and whenever the schedule permitted, the train slowed to a crawl for better viewing. Electric lamps illuminated the bell at night so that farm families who waited by the tracks could see it clearly.
The bell reached Salt Lake City on Sunday, July 11, greeted by 75,000 citizens, some 30,000 of them schoolchildren from throughout the state. Stopping at Pioneer Park, the flatcar served as a platform for speakers, including Senator Reed Smoot and Governor William Spry.
The public, far more interested in the bell than in the politicians, crowded around the car, cheering and lifting small children up for a better look. The bell paused there for five hours, and when the train left, its engineer inched through crowds that could not be held back.
The bell reached Brigham City at 5:40; its greeting there was typical of its reception at countless small towns across the country. The train pulled through the depot so that the flatcar could stop on the highway, providing the widest possible view. To the strains of a military band, 5,000 people “surged around the car on which the sacred bell was carried, and the faces of men and women became illuminated by the spirit of patriotism while … babies were passed over the railing and given an opportunity to sit upon or touch it,” reported a local journalist.
Today, not even the Park rangers touch the bell. But in 1915, children were lifted onto the car to run by the bell and stroke it in passing. “In every way the privilege to see and feel the grand old bell was extended to all who could possibly avail themselves of it during the short wait.”
Guards scattered leaflets and buttons. No time was wasted on speeches – every moment of the 15-minute stop was claimed by the people to see and touch and celebrate. They cheered as the train pulled away after its too-brief visit.
I saw no cheering around the Liberty Bell on the day I visited. But all these years later, a steady flow of visitors still gazes on the old bell whose now-silenced voice once called Americans to consent to their independence.