BIG BILL, BIG BELL AND SCHOOL BELLS: An ex-president, the Liberty Bell, and several thousand school teachers come to town.

BIG BILL, BIG BELL AND SCHOOL BELLS: An ex-president, the Liberty Bell, and several thousand school teachers come to town.

The Liberty Bell in Rochester

– Michael J. Nighan

OK, trivia time….

Question – What do William Howard Taft, the Liberty Bell and 8,000 school teachers have in common?

Answer – They were all in Rochester on the same day, Nov. 24, 1915.   Oh, and so was the governor.

So why were they here, and how’d they happen to be in town at the same time? Let’s start with Taft and the teachers.

Big Bill and the School Teachers

Having lost re-election to Woodrow Wilson in 1912, “Big Bill” Taft (who once tipped the scales at 350 lbs) was approached by his alma mater, Yale, and offered the post of professor of law and legal history, a position he accepted with alacrity. Perhaps because he was the only ex-president in the teaching game, Taft was soon regarded as one of the leading educators in America, interestingly enough a role once filled by Wilson when he had been the president of Princeton just a few years before.

SEE When President Taft spoke at Convention Hall on August 23rd, 1911

Editorial cartoon welcoming Taft to Rochester-page-0

Editorial cartoon welcoming Taft to Rochester

In between lectures to the nation’s next generation of lawyers, Taft kept busy by giving speeches around the country on such topics as the problems with the American educational system. As a result, when the New York State Teachers Association was planning for their 1915 convention, which was to be held in Rochester, they naturally looked to Big Bill as being the kind of Big Name speaker they needed to draw national attention. Taft accepted the invite and agreed to speak on Nov. 24, the convention’s closing day.

By the opening day of the three-day convention, over 8,000 (yes, that’s EIGHT THOUSAND) teachers and other educational professionals had descended on Rochester to participate in workshops and listen to scores of speakers (26 workshops with 125 speakers on the first day alone). From their headquarters in the Powers Hotel, NYSTA officials began frantically dealing with the overflow crowd, scattering meetings between the Convention Hall (today’s GEVA), the University of Rochester, East High School , and several downtown churches.

As scheduled, on November 24, Taft took the stage at 11:00 at the packed Convention Hall. By coincidence, that same day the Liberty Bell was rolling into Rochester. The result being that many teachers played hooky, preferring to see the bell rather than listen to Bill.

Undeterred by the competition across town, Taft launched into a critique of American educational institutions, calling them “inefficient and superficial” and comparing them unfavorably to those in England, France and Germany.  He blamed the problems on the “characteristic American lack of thoroughness, laxity of discipline and political influence” and made an impassioned plea for the teaching of fundamentals, morality and civility, pointing out that, “People seem to take pride in the Anglo-Saxon rudeness we think we have inherited as evidence of our being more sincere than other people”.

While opining that taxpayers, “can not complain if required to contribute a substantial sum to furnish the opportunity for education for all children of the community”, he made clear that “”We must have secular education. We can not have sectarian education supported by public funds.”

His lengthy and perhaps overly-academic address completed, Taft packed up and left town, followed shortly by the school teachers.

Now, as to the Liberty Bell…

Souvenir of Panama-Pacific Exhibition

Souvenir of Panama-Pacific Exposition

The Big Bell

With the completion of the Panama Canal in the offing, the federal government decided in 1911 to celebrate by staging a world’s fair, the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Immediately, San Francisco, seeking to show that it was successfully rising from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake and fire, offered to ante up several million dollars to subsidize costs, thus ensuring its selection by Congress as the site for the fair. The selection having duly been made, an elaborate groundbreaking ceremony was held on Oct. 14, 1911 with President William Howard Taft officiating.

Looking for a means to link the exposition and the “new” West to the “old” East, the mayor of San Francisco and the exposition executive committee struck upon the idea of requesting Philadelphia to loan out the Liberty Bell as a star attraction.

Philadelphia’s mayor, a progressive Republican businessman named Rudolph Blankenburg favored granting the request. But his political nemesis, Pennsylvania’s Republican boss and senior US senator Boies Penrose (a large, Weeble-shaped man known as the “Big Grizzly”), a reactionary of the old, old school, opposed the proposal. And when Boss Penrose crackled the whip, the Philadelphia city council fell into line behind him in blocking the request. So there matters stood for four years.

Penrose was one of the most notorious American politicians of his day. The usual graft aside, he was perhaps best known for his bare-faced acknowledgement of the connection between his party and the business community (“I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money…and out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money.” ) Penrose’s social habits were equally disturbing. For example, the unmarried Penrose was known to publicly boast of his abiding affection for prostitutes. And when he dined out, restaurants were obliged to set up screens around his table to spare other patrons the sight of the Big Grizzly nosily gobbling huge quantities of food without benefit of cutlery.

Crowd waiting in Rochester for the arrival of the Liberty Bell Special

Penrose claimed he opposed sending the Liberty Bell to the West Coast because of fears the trip might further extend the bell’s legendary crack, ignoring the fact that it had been sent on several trips in the past without damage, most recently to St. Louis in 1904. In reality, the reactionary Penrose opposed loaning the bell to San Francisco simply because the progressive Blankenburg supported it.

But San Francisco’s civic leaders kept pushing. Enlisting the aid of city school students, within weeks over 500,000 signatures were gathered on a petition to the Philadelphia city government. The support of President Wilson and ex-president Theodore Roosevelt was also enlisted to back San Francisco’s request. Unable to resist such pressure, Penrose and the city council finally yielded and agreed to let the Liberty Bell be taken on a nation-wide whistle-stop tour to the Panama-Pacific Exposition, beginning on July 5, 1915.

The problem now became how to safely move the 163 year old, 2,080 pound bell across country.   To meet the challenge, the Pennsylvania Railroad created the Liberty Bell Special, a train comprised of a specially-constructed open air flat car, described as utilizing the largest shock-absorbing springs ever constructed, several luxurious Pullman sleeper cars, a dining car and a reception car so that the Philadelphia dignitaries who would accompany the bell could travel in style.

The Liberty Bell was displayed on the flat car, hung from an oak frame bearing the painted words “1776 – Proclaim Liberty”, and surrounded by a brass railing, as well as several armed army, navy and police guards to ensure that spectators, who would be allowed to touch the bell would not get over-enthusiastic. Lastly, so that the Liberty Bell could be viewed 24/7 even while moving, a spot light was installed to illuminate it at night.

When the train reached its first stops after leaving Philadelphia, organizers began to realize that they had seriously underestimated the crowds the Liberty Bell would attract. Where hundreds were expected, thousands showed up. In town after town, city after city, far more people than could ever pass by the bell in the allotted time pushed and shoved to get into line.

After making over 100 stops across the Midwest, the Prairie states, the Rocky Mountain states and the Pacific North West states, the Liberty Bell Special pulled into San Francisco on July 17. The bell was paraded to the Pennsylvania Pavilion at the exposition where it went on display, becoming one of the major draws at the fair.  It was estimated that every day tourists took over 10,000 photographs of the Liberty Bell (and no doubt of proud family members standing next to it).  One special guest (who also had his photo taken with the Liberty Bell) was former-president Taft who toured the grounds on “Taft Day”, Sept. 2.  To assuage fears should a repetition of 1906 occur, during its four month stay in San Francisco the Liberty Bell was removed each evening to what was advertised as an “earthquake-proof” vault for protection.

On November 10, 1915, after being spared destruction in an abortive domestic terrorist attack involving a suitcase full of dynamite, the Liberty Bell was loaded back onto the its train and departed San Francisco for its return journey home.    Aboard the train were many of the Philadelphia officials who had accompanied the bell west, plus a new addition, Senator Penrose. Toying with the idea of seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1916, and sensing the political PR value of being associated with the Liberty Bell phenomena, Penrose invited himself aboard the Liberty Bell Special and began horning in on the festivities at every stop, particularly those in the Southwest and South where he was a virtual unknown.

Heading from the Deep South through the Midwest to Pittsburgh, the original plan to travel directly across Pennsylvania to Philadelphia was changed, allegedly at Penrose’s insistence so he could gain face time in the North East (his earlier concerns about the impact of travel on the Liberty Bell now apparently forgotten). The train was diverted north to Buffalo and Rochester and points east to Albany, down the Hudson River, through New Jersey, and finally back to Philadelphia.

The Liberty Bell Special had been scheduled to arrive at Rochester’s new New York Central Station (*) on Central Avenue on November 24 at 10:55 am, but was delayed by crowds in Buffalo and Batavia.RR

Spectators had been gathering along Central Avenue since early morning, with excursions trains bringing in hundreds from surrounding towns, until a crowd estimated at 30,000 and more was pressing in around the station and blocking traffic in all directions. While the restless crowd milled about, the Rochester City Park Band entertained them with various patriotic numbers.

Finally, at 11:35 am, the Liberty Bell Special was sighted and the local Naval Reserve militia, armed with two field pieces, fired off a 21 gun salute. A shout went up that, in the words of a local newspaper, “would have made the cheek of any hyphenated American who loves the land of his birth more than the land of his adoption burn with shame”.  The bell, clearly visible on its open flat car, was surrounded by a guard of honor and various dignitaries including New York‘s Gov. Charles S. Whitman.  (A request by Mayor Hiram Edgerton that all municipal and factory whistles, gongs, and bells in the city be sounded at 11:00 to mark the arrival of the Liberty Bell, went off as planned, but too early to greet the delayed train.)

As the train came to a halt, there was a mad rush among spectators hoping to gain a spot on the flat car, a rush which required Rochester Mayor Hiram Edgerton, Bishop Thomas Hickey, and University of Rochester president Rush Rhees (all of whom had managed to get there first) to ask that the interlopers be removed from the car. (George Eastman had been invited to join the elite, but apparently was unable to attend).  Mayor Edgerton had also wanted former president Taft to take part in the festivities, but as we saw above, he was busy across town.

During the Liberty Bell Special’s 40 minute stop in Rochester, the police, in an attempt to ensure an orderly flow of people (a “multiform movement of the masses” according to one reporter), hurried the crowd past the bell, past the stealth-campaigning Sen. Penrose, and past the handshaking Gov. Whitman. But the police had made the mistake of restricting spectators to a single exit.  A bottleneck quickly formed, resulting in a crush of humanity, several injuries, a significant amount of torn clothing and crushed hats, a number of fainting women, and many short tempers.

Liberty Bell Bridge over Main Street - 1944

Liberty Bell Bridge over Main Street – 1944

The Liberty Bell Special then left for short stops at Canandaigua and Geneva (where the train inadvertently left Gov. Whitman behind and had to back up several miles to retrieve him) before traveling home to Philadelphia where the Liberty Bell has since stayed put, traveling only in a few local WWI war bond parades before the City of Philadelphia, while retaining ownership, allowed the National Park Service to take custody of the bell after WWII.

During its 1915 excursion, the Liberty Bell traveled over 10,000 miles, stopped at 275 cities and towns and, its been estimated, was seen by nearly a quarter of the nation’s population. An astounding, if questionable, viewing record in a pre-television age.

But even after the Liberty Bell steamed out of Rochester, its impact stayed through two World Wars.

After Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917, the Treasury Department, in desperate need of a quick infusion of cash to pay for mobilization of a greatly-expanded army and navy, turned to the government’s newly-created propaganda department, the Committee on Public Information, to come up with an easily recognizable symbol for a campaign to sell war bonds.  The committee latched on the idea of utilizing the image of the Liberty Bell as the focus of the campaign.

In Rochester, as in other cities, hundreds of volunteers did their bit by manning bond sales stations. One particularly notable incentive gave  bond purchasers the opportunity to ring a replica of the Liberty Bell which had been hung over Main street For WWII war bond sales, a Liberty Bell Bridge was constructed across Main Street at Stone Street, featuring four flags and yet another replica of the Liberty Bell hanging in the center.  As before, buy a bond and you got to step up and ring the bell.

SEE One hundred years ago when America entered the War to End All Wars. And Rochester.

(*) The New York Central Station, also known as the Union Station, was designed by noted architect Claude Bragdon and opened in 1914.   Most of the structure was demolished in 1965 with a few sad, sorry remnants remaining into the 1970s.  Several years ago “ The Infrastructurist”, a noted urban architecture website, published an article, “Demolished! 11 Beautiful Train Stations That Fell to the Wrecking Ball (and the Crappy Stuff Built in Their Place)”.  Rochester’s station was ranked as the seventh most beautiful of America’s vanished train stations.  And as the article’s title implied, note was made of the “temporary” little  passenger hut that replaced it from 1978 until 2015 when it in turn was torn down,  making way for Rochester’s latest rail station, intentionally designed to be reminiscent of Bragdon’s masterpiece.


When President Taft spoke at Convention Hall on August 23rd, 1911

One hundred years ago when America entered the War to End All Wars. And Rochester.

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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