October 6, 1895 was a historic day for Johnson City and numerous other towns in the South. The Liberty Bell, perhaps the most precious relic of the birth of our nation traveled by rail from Philadelphia through our city to Atlanta to reside as a major exhibit in the Cotton States and International Exposition being held there.
The Liberty Bell was cast in 1753 at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the East End of London and sent to Pennsylvania. It consisted of 70% copper, 25% tin and traces of lead, zinc, arsenic, gold and silver. The bell weighed 2,080 pounds; the yoke added another 100 pounds. It was 12 feet in circumference around the lip and had a 44-pound clapper.
Although this was not the first or last journey for the famed Bell, some people expressed their concern that a railway accident could destroy it or perhaps cause it to further crack. Others reasoned that the Bell belonged to the nation and should be shared with its people. Another faction saw it as a means to further improve still strained relations between the North and South by promoting national patriotism. A lawsuit settled the argument when a court ruled that Philadelphia could proceed with the trip.
The train consisted of five Pullman coaches, a combination buffet car and a flat car containing the Bell. Around the platform of the latter vehicle was a railing, constructed so as not to obstruct the view of its prized occupant. On each side were panels bearing the words, “Philadelphia” on one side and “Atlanta” on the other. In the center of the platform was a special protective frame to keep the Bell from moving. On the top lengthwise timber was inscribed in golden letters, “1776, Proclaim Liberty.” This was in reference to Leviticus 25:10 (“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”).
On October 4 at 8:00 a.m., the train departed the “City of Brotherly Love” while a sizable crowd gave the train an enthusiastic send off and wishes for a safe return. As the train traveled from city to city, cheering crowds, speeches, ceremonies, blaring factory whistles and great fanfare greeted it. Spectators touched it, kissed it and saluted it.
After making numerous stops of varying durations at towns in Delaware and Maryland, it sped through the Roanoke Valley, over the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the valley of East Tennessee. Although there were no firing of guns, blaring of brass bands or wild hurrahs like what was seen in the northern cities, the part of the country that furnished so many Union soldiers during the Civil War demonstrated beyond question its loyalty and patriotism to the country.
At many stops, schools were dismissed while bullet-scarred former Confederates walked side-by-side with G.A.R. (Grand Order of the Republic) Union veterans uncovering their heads in salutation to their northern guest. The train stopped in Bristol, Tennessee at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 6 and proceeded to make brief stops in Johnson City (see photo), Greenville and Morristown before halting in Knoxville at 7:00 p.m. for the night.
The next morning found the train continuing its journey through Loudon, Athens, Cleveland and Chattanooga where it again parked overnight. The next morning it chugged through Dalton and Rome, Georgia before reaching its final destination in Atlanta at 2:00 p.m. on October 8. A parade two miles long escorted the prized Bell to Exposition Park. It was enthusiastically received along the route, being the most notable day of the Exposition with 40,000 persons in attendance on the grounds.
The Liberty Bell arrived back in Philadelphia at noon on February 4, 1896 after a successful 4-month absence. A 45-gun salute announced its return.