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Aug. 18, 2022

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Clark County History: Liberty Bell visits Vancouver

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The symbol of American liberty traveled by flatcar from its home in Philadelphia, traversing the nation, then back again in 1915. Along the way, the Liberty Bell stopped briefly in Vancouver, woefully two weeks after the July 4 celebration.

Manufactured in London, a test ringing cracked the brittle one-ton bell. That the bronze bell broke ringing on Independence Day 1776 is a myth. Stories about when it cracked vary. One contends it fractured ringing for the death of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835. Another claims it split in 1846, clanging on Washington’s birthday. Artisans, trying to save it, recast it twice, adding more copper to soften the tin-hardened bronze.

It wasn’t known as the Liberty Bell until abolitionists appropriated it for their cause in the 1830s. The city of Philadelphia owned the bell and had loaned it out before. The first time to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It traveled to New Orleans two years later, where teary-eyed people turned out to caress and kiss the 12-foot-wide bell.

Three actions converged to prompt the bell’s promotional tour across the nation: the completion of the Panama Canal; the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition; and a petition signed by a half-million students. The bell left Philadelphia on July 4 and traveled to the West Coast, suggesting the nation’s completion of its “from sea to shining sea” destiny. All along the way, people in every community gathered along the tracks for most a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the nation’s hallowed bell.

The famous bell, riding on a flatcar, would pass through Vancouver on its way to the San Francisco Exposition, which had been modeled on the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland. It cut through the Midwest, Idaho and pushed into Washington, stopping first in Everett, where crowds delayed the train an hour. Then it headed for Seattle and Olympia. It was scheduled to rattle along the rails the morning of July 15 through Vancouver.

The town wanted more than a pass-through. So Clement Scott, C.N. Christopherson and Glenn Ranck formed a committee and negotiated for a five- or 10-minute stop so locals and schoolchildren might view the cracked bell. The group planned to fill the scheduled pause with a boisterous welcome by Clark County’s cheering residents tolling bells and waving flags.

Even Gov. Ernest Lister pleaded for a brief stop before the bell crossed the Columbia River to Portland. He passed a letter to Scott saying the symbol would arrive early. On the evening of the 14th, the train would leave Olympia and arrive in Portland the following day at 5:30 a.m., allowing Vancouver residents a viewing for half an hour.

Earlier in the week, The Columbian published a brief statement: “It won’t hurt anyone to get up an hour or so earlier for the purpose of giving the old Liberty Bell a patriotic greeting, and the opportunity may never occur again.” Many followed the newspaper’s advice and arose early to gather at the Vancouver railroad depot for a momentary glance — their first and only look at the symbol of their liberty.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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