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Liberty comes and goes

It’s the only time 5,000 people ever gathered at 2:15 in the morning at the Medford train station just to welcome a national treasure.

It hadn’t been easy; yet, 200,000 letters from California schoolchildren, pleading for a visit of the Liberty Bell to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, had finally done the trick.

The Bell was cracked and hadn’t rung for almost 70 years. The Philadelphia City Council, responsible for the Bell, worried that a cross-country trip might finally break this grand relic to pieces. But the council finally relented.

Since its casting in 1752, this was the seventh and last time the Liberty Bell would ever leave Philadelphia, and the first time it traveled farther west than St. Louis.

At sunrise July 5, 1915, workers took the Bell from its case in Independence Hall and prepared it for the trip. Suspended from the finest shock absorbers available, riding on a specially built steel gondola car, lighted electrically and draped with the Stars and Stripes, it was guarded by six Philadelphia policemen and a delegation of Philadelphia officials.

With the announcement of a 10,000-mile tour of the nation from Philadelphia to San Francisco and back, excited Southern Oregon residents realized they would have a very brief chance to see and perhaps even touch the Liberty Bell.

As “The Liberty Bell Special” turned south from Portland, Southern Oregon rivalry broke out. Medford officials discovered the train would only stop in Ashland and not Medford. Oregon Sen. George Chamberlain received an urgent and frenzied telegram, begging for a 10-minute Medford stop to equal Ashland. With an altered schedule, both cities began planning celebrations.

For those who wished to stay up, Medford movie theaters were open all night with continuous showings. There was a late-night band concert in the city park, a dance to “keep the light-footed alert” and “watch parties” in all of the churches. For those who wished a few hours sleep, the fire whistle would blare a half hour before the train arrived.

Ashland made similar preparations with one addition. The summer ban on fireworks was lifted so “America’s dearest relic will receive its most unique and patriotic nighttime welcome.”

Just before 2 a.m., July 16, 1915, the train rolled past the Seven Oaks milk platform where a small “Liberty Party” had gathered for a fleeting glimpse of the national treasure.

In a holiday mood, 5,000 sleepy men, women and children filled Medford streets and began walking toward the depot. At least 500 automobiles were already parked along the tracks. To keep the crowd entertained, a small fife and drum corps began to play. Medford police Sergeant Pat Mego, the only drummer for the group, so enthusiastically beat his drum that he broke it, but the fifes played on.

“The bell is a plain and homely piece of metal,” a Mail Tribune reporter wrote. “It looks like the pictures familiar to everyone. But that poor broken, cracked relic of the past is enshrined in the hearts of the people.”

“The Special” arrived in Ashland to the sound of shrieking fire horns and a cheering crowd of 3,000. A fireworks display of noisy color, booming, popping and crackling lit up the dark summer sky.

A “tribute of silence” was called for — “A few minutes for bent soldiers, young schoolchildren and hard-headed businessmen to contemplate the greatest of all American relics.”

There was barely enough time to take a photograph before the train left to climb the twisted route over the Siskiyous on its way to San Francisco, where it would remain until November 1915.

In the words of a local reporter: “A once in a lifetime moment is gone now. How lucky we have been to see it come and go.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.