At 9:35 p.m. on Monday November 15, 1915 the Liberty Bell made a stop in Yuma. This was THE Liberty Bell, not a replica, and it would spend nearly half of 1915 away from its home in Philadelphia on what turned out to be its final triumphant tour of the United States.
The Arizona Sentinel noted that despite the “unseasonable hour set for the arrival of the Liberty Bell at Yuma, the wide-awake people of this busy city will celebrate its passage with elaborate ceremony.” Approximately 2500 persons—about a thousand less than Yuma’s total population in 1915—waited at the ornately decorated Southern Pacific depot as the seven-car train carrying the Liberty Bell arrived an hour late from San Diego where it had appeared for several days at the Panama-California Exposition.
The stop in Yuma lasted only 13 minutes, so speeches and formalities were kept to a minimum. A band was present to serenade the travelling party which included Pennsylvania Senator Boise Penrose. Yuma mayor C.H. Moore and W.G. Kirkpatrick of the chamber of commerce presented the visitors with a box of Yuma oranges and grapefruit. The newspaper noted the “beautiful scene of little Indian girls” being lifted over the railing to touch the bell, followed by other women and children from the crowd. At 9:48 p.m. the train departed Yuma for the bell’s next stop at the town of Maricopa. The sleepy Maricopa crowd finally greeted the train at 4:00 a.m., two hours later than scheduled. A few hours later the final Arizona stop was in Tucson.
The primary destination of the Liberty Bell’s 1915 journey was the San Francisco World’s Fair, also known as the Pan-Pacific Exposition, where the bell arrived on July 16 and remained on display for nearly four months. In the years following the Civil War, the Liberty Bell had been sent out on several good will excursions, including the New Orleans and Chicago World’s Fairs, but Philadelphia officials were reluctant to send the bell on the more arduous journey to California. Eventually, they were swayed by public opinion, including a petition signed by 500,000 California school children.
The train took a northern route on its way west, making many stops along the way. It typically made longer stops in major cities, such as the five-hour stay in Salt Lake City where over 100,000 attended. One of the brief stops on the southern return route was at Liberty, Texas. Even when it didn’t stop, the Liberty Bell was viewed by crowds all along the route since it travelled on an illuminated open gondola car. The round trip of approximately 17,000 miles took the bell through 30 of the nation’s 48 states, and included scheduled stops in 117 cities and towns.
Contemporary accounts and photos of the 1915 Liberty Bell excursion indicate that people at the stops were allowed to get “up close and personal” by touching –and frequently kissing—the bell. The security detail on board the train merely consisted of four Philadelphia policemen. Fortunately, there were few incidents such as the one described in a Spokane, Washington headline: “Mischievous Boys Hurl Stones at the Liberty Bell.” A potential disaster was averted on the return trip when a fire broke out in a Paducah, Kentucky warehouse a few hundred feet from where the train was resting. All in all, crowd control problems were minimal, and the organizers’ daunting itinerary was followed with remarkable precision. When the Liberty Bell arrived back home on Thanksgiving Day, it was given a hero’s welcome by 20,000 Philadelphians gathered in Independence Square.
Will the Liberty Bell ever visit Yuma again? Not likely, since the 264-year-old landmark has not left Philadelphia since its historic cross-country sojourn one hundred years ago. Today the bell rests at the Liberty Bell Center where each year over a million visitors experience the same patriotic pride felt by the Yuma crowd in 1915. Although today’s visitors must first pass through a security screening area, and touching and kissing the bell are now strictly prohibited, the Liberty Bell’s inscribed message is timeless: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
October 1, 2015