The Lost Columbian Exposition Bell

I have a special interest in Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, since I live in the neighborhood of its location. You may know about the exposition from the popular book by Erik Larson, Devil in the White City, the tale based on the serial murderer who operated a hotel nearby.

What’s intriguing to me about the exposition is the lost bell. A replica, of sorts, of the Liberty Bell was cast by the Meneely bell foundry of Troy, NY. The Liberty Bell may be thought of as more an inspiration for the Columbian Exposition Bell, since it weighed in at 13,000 pounds (much larger than the real Liberty Bell) and the inscriptions and decorations are different. It appears that the Liberty Bell inscription wraps around the bottom of the Columbian Bell. It’s nearly impossible that they would have sounded anything like each other. Both were symbols of freedom, while the Columbian Bell also symbolized peace.

Columbian Exposition bell 1893
Columbian Exposition bell 1893
The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell

This large bell went missing a few years after the fair. Where did it go?

Local Chicago researchers Melissa Cook, Bonnie Tipton Long, Jack Ferry, and school children at a summer camp (now THAT’S a summer camp I can get behind) presented their research on our Hyde Park online forum. The Daughters of the American Revolution were behind the bell project, and they had grand plans that it would travel the world afterwards. At the exposition, public enthusiasm for the bell was low, alas. Plans were downgraded accordingly. The bell traveled around to different towns in Illinois and on the state border. Later, it resided at the International and Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. Next, it toured Mexico, then England. After that, the trail gets cold.

An article in a DAR magazine from the 1940s says that the bell was sent to Russia, but it was held up in 1905 awaiting the payment of tariffs. They still had possession of the bell during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The bell allegedly fell victim to the conflict and was smelted down by the Bolsheviks for weapons. All of this information on Russia is based on an unsigned letter, so it’s nearly impossible to confirm (anyone want to go digging through Russian archives?).

Perhaps this bell entered into that ceaseless cycle of war and peace, which is unfortunate, given that it represented peace. But as we’ve read before, even bells are not immune to becoming appropriated for war.

3 thoughts on “The Lost Columbian Exposition Bell

  1. Interesting write-up on the Columbian Exposition bell. During my college years I was drawn into similar bell mysteries: at the University of Michigan, years before the Charles Baird carillon was installed on central campus, there were several bells on campus.

    In the mid-19th century two different pole-mounted dinner bells were used to assemble students. I have been unable to trace their fate.

    There was also a peal of five bells in the old library (which no longer has towers, and has largely been rebuilt as the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library). I was determined to find the current location of those bells… but after digging up two university history books at Bentley Historical Library, I learned that the five bells were melted down during World War 2. Much like the believed fate of the Columbian Bell! I’ll bet this happened a lot 🙁

    Anyways, it was interesting to see your post and relive that wild goose chase that I also went on, attempting to find old bells.

    Happy ringing,
    Dan Frysinger

  2. Read recently, in a book entitled “The Liberty Bell”, by historian Gary B. Nash, that the Columbian Bell was in Paris, in 1900, on exhibit for the Paris World’s Exhibition.

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