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When the Liberty Bell Went on a National Tour

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Philadelphia Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg had specific instructions for both the employees of Independence Hall and the citizens of the city on Independence Day 1915. He wanted the Hall to remain open past its regular closing time. This, he told the city, was so it could accommodate everyone who might want to say goodbye to the Liberty Bell.

The next morning, it would be gone. And Blankenburg wasn’t sure it was ever coming back—at least, not in one piece.


TradingCardsNPS, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Liberty Bell, once known as the State House Bell, is one of the most iconic objects in American history. Originally forged in London for delivery to Philadelphia in 1752, it broke upon the first strike and was twice re-casted by metalworkers John Pass and John Stow. Newly strengthened, it was a signal for lawmakers and residents to assemble. But after 90-odd years of persistent ringing, a crack started to manifest. Workers widened the crack and inserted rivets in the hopes it wouldn’t get worse.

According to some accounts, it did—perhaps after a ceremony to commemorate George Washington’s birthday in 1846—and so the Bell was taken out of service, becoming less of a utility and more of a symbol for an assortment of civil rights causes, from abolitionists to the suffragette movement.

While Philadelphians could visit Independence Hall for inspiration, the rest of the country often clamored for a look. Between 1885 and 1904, the Bell went on six road trips, first to the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans and finally to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Workers hoisted it on dollies and on train cars, passing through states so Americans could see the 2000-pound symbol for themselves.

Some observers were more recognizable than others. As it passed through Mississippi on its trip to New Orleans, former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis approached the Bell and spoke to it directly: "You, sacred organ, gave voice to the proudest declaration that a handful of men ever made ... Glorious old Bell, the son of a Revolutionary soldier bows in reverence before you.” Thomas Edison, who had visited it several times, was also spotted during a later tour, apparently fascinated with the sight of the Bell in the wild.

The 1904 trip appeared to be the last time it would leave Philadelphia city limits. With each successive journey, citizens fretted about the fragility of the Bell and whether it could survive transport. But in 1911, a band of politicians began making noise about another trip—this one clear across the country to San Francisco, where Mayor Jim Rolph petitioned for the Bell to appear in his city’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst endorsed the idea; San Francisco classrooms wrote letters urging Philadelphia to consider it; and in 1912, a petition bearing the signatures of thousands of San Francisco kids desperate to see the bell was sent to the Philadelphia City Council.

Philadelphia Mayor Blankenburg didn’t need any convincing. He agreed to the proposal, but was met with pushback by Boies Penrose, a senator and political rival who insisted the Bell remain undisturbed in the Hall. Talks dragged on for years between the cities, with the chief concerns being the Bell’s welfare in transit and the potential for its status as an American icon to be diminished.

The Bell, according to former Pennsylvania governor Samuel Pennypacker, was to be viewed with reverence and not stuck at “fairs associated with fat pigs and fancy furniture.” Other critics charged that for all the talk of fueling patriotism, the real motive was for the fair organizers in San Francisco to have an attraction that could draw huge crowds. Worst of all, prior trips had resulted in the Bell returning to Philadelphia a few pounds lighter: Gawkers would try and covertly chisel pieces of it off as a souvenir.

The two sides were at a standstill when the San Francisco fair opened in February 1915. As a kind of consolation prize, Blankenburg arranged for a ringing of the bell over the transcontinental Bell Telephone lines that had just been hung across the country.

But Rolph wouldn’t stop campaigning. His insistence, coupled with the sinking of the British ship Lusitania in May 1915, led to Philadelphia’s anti-touring contingent to soften. If the U.S. was about to be pulled into a world war, then perhaps some portable patriotism was in order.

Still, warnings by metallurgical engineers that the Bell faced the potential of being returned in pieces continued. Speaking to the Oakland Tribune, the reported “doctor” of the relic, Alexander Outerbridge Jr., spoke of the Bell as a patient afflicted with a cryptic “diseases of metals.”

“I myself have no hesitation in saying that the bell has a distemper which should insure its most careful preservation from all shocks such as it would be subjected to on a long journey,” he said.

The cross-country trip would be undertaken by rail, with the Pennsylvania Railroad given the responsibility of creating a ride smooth enough to minimize the risk of any further damage. Massive springs were used to cushion the train car housing the Bell. Dubbed the Liberty Bell Special, the train could also accommodate city councilmen and their families making the trip along with their special cargo.

The Bell hung from a yoke on the car and was surrounded by a brass railing to deter visitors from getting too close; a hook system was tethered to the lip of the Bell to prevent the crack from expanding, a precaution which remains in place today. Officials were firmly set on only allowing the blind to place a hand on it, but the Bell’s handlers were unable or unwilling to corral children, who were frequently hoisted up and allowed to kiss the metal.

Adults took a different tact. They would use whatever trinkets, jewelry, or pocket items they had at their disposal, handing them to guards and asking them to hold them up to the Bell’s surface. As the car traveled on through to San Francisco, the crowds could sometimes grow so deep that their edges couldn’t be seen from the train. An ocean of people had come at every stop to take in an inanimate object that had come to represent either the freedom they had or the freedom they longed to acquire.


IMLS Digital Collections and Content, Flickr  // CC BY 2.0

Incredibly, it’s believed that one-quarter of the country’s 1915 population was able to view the Bell as it made the 10,000-mile journey to San Francisco. When it arrived in California, the pull was so strong that it even lured a notorious safe robber named John Collins out of hiding. A police officer spotted him in the crowd and had him hauled away.

The train came to a stop on July 17, with the Bell getting a reprieve from travel. It remained on exhibit for four months, attracting far more attention than fair organizers could have predicted. In November, the Liberty Bell Special turned course and returned for home. The retreat was more eventful—and tragic—than the departure, with a woman in Memphis being crushed to death by the force of the swelling crowd. And while the Bell usually loomed over crowds in major cities, some stopovers were more truncated. In Beaumont, Texas, residents were disappointed to find the attraction would only be idling there for 10 minutes at 1 a.m. (although it didn't actually arrive until 6:30 a.m.).

Once it was returned to Independence Hall, the Bell’s handlers—politicians and caretakers alike—rebuffed any further attempts to put it back on wheels. The 1976 Bicentennial was one potential motivation, but further concerns over its condition meant the only trip it took was from Independence Hall to a specially constructed pavilion. It was moved to its current location in 2003. More than 18,000 people visit the bell daily today, where it remains intact—or as intact as it ever was.

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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How Austrian Soldiers Saved the 1964 Olympics
Allsport Hulton/Archive
Allsport Hulton/Archive

Although the Austrian city of Innsbruck has a well-deserved reputation as a winter sports mecca, it was dangerously low on snow and ice in the weeks leading up the 1964 Winter Olympics. So the organizers called in the troops.

Austrian soldiers went to work carving 20,000 blocks of ice away from the top of the mountain and then toting them down to make luge and bobsled tracks. In order to salvage the skiing events, the soldiers had to lug 40,000 cubic meters of snow from the tops of mountains down to the slopes that had been chosen for the various races. On top of that, they brought down an extra 20,000 cubic meters just in case anything bad happened to the first batch of snow.

And oh, how something bad did happen! Ten days before the opening ceremony, it started raining. As you probably know, rain and snow aren't the closest of chums, so much of the work that had already been done on the courses melted. The Austrian army again came to the rescue, though, taking to the slopes and tamping down the remaining snow by hand and foot. Thanks to this bit of resourcefulness, the games went on as planned.

Things aren't quite that tricky today, though. Artificially produced snow made its debut at the 1980 Winter Olympics, but the old "bring in some outside snow" tactic isn't totally dead. When the snow forecast for the Vancouver freestyle skiing and snowboarding venue Cypress Mountain looked grim in 2010, the organizers started trucking in loads of snow from other locations. Engineers then spread the snow on top of carefully situated bales of hay to give the slopes their desired shape. (How do you get bales of hay on a ski slope? You drop them from a helicopter.)

Of course, there's such a thing as too much winter weather for the Olympics, too. Snow and rain plagued the 1998 Nagano Games and led to lengthy delays and postponements for some events.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

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