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March/April 2014

In 1892, the DAR led a project to create a new bell, known as the Columbian Liberty Bell, to ring at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Ill., in place of the original Liberty Bell housed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pa., which because of its crack could no longer ring. Inspiration for this plan has been credited to both New Jersey resident William McDowell and Minnie F. Mickley of the Liberty Bell Chapter, Allentown, Pa. The Columbian Liberty Bell Committee, formed to oversee the project, hoped the bell could be finished in time to sound its first ring on July 4, 1893, at the exposition.

Instead of casting the Columbian Liberty Bell from freshly mined metals, the National Society collected metal items donated by everyday citizens and national dignitaries. Contributions included pennies collected by schoolchildren, filings from the original Liberty Bell, part of a watch chain worn by President Abraham Lincoln the night of his assassination, part of George Washington’s surveying chain, coat and belt buckles worn by soldiers of the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and countless other items. The state of Pennsylvania donated the coal needed for the founding, railroads shipped donated relics free of charge, and the Meneely Foundry of Troy, N.Y., cast the bell for free.

The bell missed its target debut date of July 4, but finally left the foundry in August 1893, passing through cities including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and Indianapolis on its way to Chicago, where it was installed in front of the fair’s Administration Building. From there the bell was to visit major U.S. cities, Mexico City and Runnymede, England, where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215.

After the Columbian Liberty Bell’s world tour the National Society planned to create a permanent home for it. “Let us build a bell-tower, then surround it with our building, and in this way have this broad-minded harbinger of peace always in our midst,” said Ms. Mickley at Continental Congress in February 1893.  But at some point during its travels, the bell vanished. A January 1944 National Historical Magazine article by Josephine Tighe Williams quotes an unsigned letter that reads, in part, “I saw the bell in Chicago in 1893 and am sure I saw the same bell in St. Petersburg, Russia, as late as June 1905 … I have heard that the bell was broken up under the regime of the Bolsheviks during [the] disintegration of the old Czarist empire.” To date, the mystery of the Columbian Liberty Bell’s whereabouts remains unsolved.