The Liberty Bell Wreck

Note: Historians are currently searching for proof of this alleged incident. The following is extracted from an article by Gene Hull, in the Arkansas Railroader, Vol. 25, Number 7, July 1994.

Most of the citizens of the early United States never had the opportunity to see their famous bell. It hung in the tower of Independence Hall, and those were the days before nationwide travel. In 1885 an Independence Exposition was held at New Orleans. For this occasion the old bell rode the rails southward. Then, in 1893 it went to the Columbian Exposition at Chicago. Two years later the people in Atlanta examined the bell at the Cotton States Exposition.

In January 1902, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, was to be the host for the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. At that time the city of Philadelphia owned the bell, and a bit of persuasion was needed by the folks at Charleston to have the bell sent for a visit. Finally, arrangements were made for Liberty Bell to once again ride the rails.

The route was over the Pennsylvania R.R. from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pa.; to the Potomac River at Powel's Bend (Hagerstown, Md.) on the Cumberland Valley R.R.; to Bristol, Tenn. on the Norfolk & Western; on the Southern to Savannah, and on to Charleston over the Plant System. The return was on the Atlantic Coast Line to Richmond, Va.; to Washington, D.C. on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R-R.; and to Philadelphia on the Pennsylvania R.R.

The Pennsylvania R.R, put Charles R. Rosenberg, company tourist agent, in charge of the special train, the Liberty Bell Special. There were two of the best Pullman cars available, two baggage cars (one well stocked with liquor of various kinds), and a special flat car on the rear. It was an old 34-foot passenger car which had been cut down to the floor. A three-foot high nickel plated guardrail was installed around the edge.

On Saturday, 4 January 1902, the Liberty Bell was loaded on a lavishly decorated wagon, and a team of horses pulled it to the Pennsylvania Railroad yard at West Philadelphia. A large crowd of concerned citizens had followed. A large steam crane carefully lifted the big bell and swung it onto the flat car, where it was mounted in a wooden yoke equipped with wheels. The precious load was carefully blocked to keep it from moving. A platform at each end of the car would allow a passing crowd of people to see and touch the famous bell.

The train sat in the yard until Monday, waiting for Philadelphia Mayor Ashbridge and about 40 invited guests to get ready for the trip.

On Monday the train pulled into Broad Street Station, and was scheduled to leave at 8:00 a.m. Four police guards were on the flat car, and a huge crowd was shouting and waving flags. As the train rolled out exactly on time, a series of heavy, booming sounds was heard. Windows rattled. People were startled. Then they realized the Navy battleships at League Island Navy Yard were firing a 21-gun salute.

A party soon was underway. There were poker games and a lot of political talk. There were crowds waving at the stations and road crossings. Individuals came from farmhouses. Farmers stopped in the fields. Everyone greeted the big bell. The train still was on schedule when it reached the resort area of Luray Caverns in western Virginia at 10:30 p.m. A heavy, cold fog had formed along the Blue Ridge.

In the Pullman cars porters were busy delivering drinks and collecting generous tips. About midnight Charles Rosenberg decided to retire to his berth. The fog still was heavy, and sight was restricted to a few yards. Charley soon was asleep.

Some time before dawn the train stopped with a terrific jolt. Charley stumbled into the aisle of the Pullman car to meet others staggering from their berths. Everyone dressed quickly, and climbed down to the low embankment along the track. They could see one of the baggage cars was burning.

The Liberty Bell Special was wrecked!

Charley told the porter of his car to find the other porter, the Pullman conductor, the train conductor, and get all the passengers to a safe place off the right-of-way. Going to the front of the train, he soon found what had happened. A freight train, far behind schedule, had pulled into a siding and set out some cars. For some unknown reason, the freight had pulled out onto the main fine into the path of the Special. Because of the heavy fog the fireman and engineer didn't see the rear of the freight, and both were crushed to death.

It was several miles to the nearest town, and the next train wasn't due until 7:00 a.m. The delegation aboard the Special were very concerned about the bell. If the fire continued to consume the wooden cars the bell could be destroyed. They managed to uncouple the flat car, and a slight grade of the track let the car roll about 200 feet from the train.

With the immediate problem taken care of, Charley began walking back along the track to get help. He had gone about three miles when the pale yellow glow of his lantern revealed the outline of a small structure beside the track. It looked like a tool shed, which wouldn't be much help. It proved to be a tiny way station, locked for the night.

Perhaps there was a telephone inside. Behind the building Charley found a piece of tree limb, and he used it to break open a window. He found a desk, chair and a small table. No telephone. But, on the table there was a telegraph key.

Fortune was smiling.

As a young fellow, still in his teens, Charley was an operator for the old Baltimore & Ohio Telegraph Company in Philadelphia. So long ago! He opened the key, and clumsy fingers began calling for any operator on the line. The rough calls continued for ten minutes, but no answer came. Charley would have to keep walking.

The sounder on the table began to chatter.

"Who are you? What do you want? F. B."

Weak with relief, Charley spelled out his message.

"Representative Pennsylvania Railroad on the Liberty Bell Special wrecked three miles below here. Need immediate help. Who is F.B."

FB was Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The old skill returned to Charley's fingers, and he sent out the story of the wreck. The Fredericksburg op said he would take care of the situation immediately. Charley climbed out of the window and began his three-mile return journey.

A relief train arrived soon after Charley got back. Both baggage cars had burned, including all the booze. A new engine was coupled to the Pullmans, and the Liberty Bell was again bringing up the rear. By 7:00 a.m. the abbreviated special was on it's way to Bristol, Tennessee.

At Charleston a large crowd was on hand, and a 13-gun salute greeted the bell as it was removed from the flat car and put carefully on a decorated wagon. The vehicle began to sag under the 2,000-pound weight. The bell was quickly put back on the car, and the engine managed to take it near the fair grounds. The bell was carefully moved the rest of the way on pipe rollers.

The Liberty Bell was to stay in Charleston one day, but it was so popular it stayed five months. When it was returned to Independence Hall in June, a thousand Philadelphians came by the first half hour.

In the mid-1930's, H. T. Carpenter, Curator and Superintendent of Independence Hall National Museum, said the officials would not favor any more trips for the bell because the crack was increasing, and the danger was too great. In 1976 it was moved to a pavilion in Independence Mall near the old hall. Its rail travels were finished.