Sunday, January 05, 2014

Liberty Bell, Portland City Hall

If you walk past the 4th Avenue side of Portland's City Hall, you might notice a replica Liberty Bell installed on the north end of the grounds. There's an interesting history behind it, so it seemed like it was worth a blog post. For those of you from outside the US, and those who slept through US history class in grade school, the original Liberty Bell is a large bell commissioned for the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in 1752. Various apocryphal stories have grown up around it, particularly that it was rung on July 4th, 1776 to mark the Declaration of Independence. It's become famous for that event (which didn't actually happen), and for the long jagged crack that renders it unusable as a bell. As far as historians can tell it played no actual role in the American Revolution, but all the same it's been a national symbol since before the Civil War.

In the years between 1885 and 1915, the Liberty Bell was sent around the country several times on publicity tours, until concerns about wear and tear, souvenir-hunting, and additional cracking brought an end to its touring days. On its very last trip, the bell traveled west, headed to San Francisco's Panama-Pacific Exposition. A public petition drive led to the Liberty Bell making a brief five-hour stop in Portland on the morning of July 15th, 1915. The train arrived at Union Station, the bell traveling in its own special rail car. In those days there was still a railroad line up 4th Avenue, so they simply switched the bell's car to a local locomotive and hauled it up 4th to the Multnomah County Courthouse, where it was displayed to the public for a few hours. There was a parade by the state militia, and the city welcoming committee did its best to entertain the dignitaries traveling with the bell. When its stay concluded, they hauled the bell back to Union Station and its regular train, and it left town, never to return.

Nearly 50 years later, a retired local businessman decided the city needed its own Liberty Bell replica, and started a fundraising campaign to buy one. He had been under the impression that no exact duplicates of the original existed, and was surprised to learn that Salem had gotten one (along with the capitols of other US states & territories) in the early 1950s. He was undeterred, however, and Portland's bell arrived in June 1963, just before the 4th of July. The bell was slightly banged up on arrival. It came with a 25 year warranty against breakage. These two facts strike me as odd for a deliberately broken bell. The bell also arrived without the city having a clear idea of where it was going to go. Several sites were proposed, notably the now all-but-forgotten World War II memorial at Memorial Coliseum. After a year of handwringing they decided to leave it at City Hall. A year later, a plaque was added nearby honoring Henry J. Casey, the retired businessman whose idea this was.

This bell had a very short career, however. On the night of November 21st, 1970, a bomb exploded in Portland's City Hall, shattering the bell and heavily damaging the city council chambers. (Photos of the damage here and here.) No deaths or serious injuries resulted, however. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, and no arrests have ever been made. News accounts generally assume there was a political motive of some sort, with 60s radicals the default suspects. And that's one possibility, certainly. But it could just as easily have been someone with a more personal beef at City Hall. Anger over a big building code fine, say, or denial of a requested permit, or a grievance over taxes. Or it could have been someone just obeying the little voices. At this point we'll probably never know for sure unless someone makes a deathbed confession.

In 2006, the City Hall bombing was referenced by a traveling art project, The School of Panamerican Unrest:

The topic of Helguera's panels and discussions changes with each location. On Tuesday evening, Helguera—along with a panel that includes Red 76's Sam Gould, Harrell Fletcher, and Ian Greenfield (Lightbox Studios and the Oregon Bus Project—will engage in a panel discussion on The Portland Liberty Bell: Questions on Civil Disobedience. "On Nov. 21, 1970, a powerful bomb exploded behind Portland's City Hall, and arguably destroyed the State's bronze replica of the Liberty Bell. A urban myth that the Portland Liberty Bell was destroyed has never been fully dispelled, along with the open mystery of who carried out this and other terrorist acts—although it was largely suspected of students and civilian activists. This discussion explores that historic moment in Portland and the US and will include a discussion civil life and unresolved social or political conflict."

In any case, the city soon resolved to replace the original bell. This time there were issues with the bell being cast improperly (that is, a deliberately cracked bell was alleged to have been made incorrectly), and the city and the bell foundry argued over it for three years while the bell sat in storage. It was finally unveiled in Terry Schrunk Plaza in 1975. The city ended up paying $6000 for the replacement bell, a $2000 discount due to the manufacturing problems. This is cheaper than the $12,000 original bell, probably because over a ton of the original bell's metal was recycled into the new bell. In recent years, the replacement bell was moved across the street back to the City Hall grounds where it now stands.

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