3rd & Townsend 1915. View southwest across intersection to Southern Pacific Passenger Depot shortly after completion. Horse drawn Palace & Fairmont Hotel shuttle coach at right.

The Liberty Bell’s Last Trip

In the historic South End district where our beloved San Francisco Giants play, where bars, restaurants and businesses define a thriving community was once home to bustling warehouses and dock workers moving grain and other products onto ships bound for foreign ports and a classic train station built for our first world’s fair.

Today, the neighborhood’s unique history is revealed in the extraordinary collection of buildings that represent almost every period of San Francisco’s maritime history, which from 1867 to 1935 marked the golden era for San Francisco’s waterfront as it became the vital part of the City and our nation’s maritime commerce.

In the heyday of the 1870s, California dominated the nation as the largest grain producing state and its “California gold” grain shipped from these docks won over Europeans with its exceptional quality. John Hooper’s South End Grain Warehouse built in 1874 and located at 64 Townsend is the second oldest building in the district.

Warehouses were transformed as our Port City evolved from its maritime roots to modern times, housing luxury condos, prized eateries and new hi-tech businesses. Several street fronts, including Second, Third and Townsend, are known for their solid walls of brick and reinforced concrete warehouses. One story warehouses were common in the nineteenth century but rare in the early 20th century due to increasing cost of land.

These storied neighborhoods also became center stage for one of the most famous visitors in its remarkable history. In early November 1915, the waterfront neighborhood witnessed the last visit of the Liberty Bell, which had been displayed at the Panama Pacific International Exposition grounds for several months. It was escorted by the Buffalo Soldiers of the 24th Infantry that was stationed in the Presidio. John Phillips Sousa played his patriotic marching songs as adults and children — 20,000 of whom had petitioned to bring the bell to San Francisco — lined the route to wave goodbye to the American icon, which would never again leave Philadelphia.

The Liberty Bell made its way from the 635 acres of fairgrounds in what’s now the Marina district to the newly built train station with its head turning mission revival architecture. A year prior, San Francisco rebuilt its train station and located it at 3rd and Townsend for the millions of visitors traveling to the city’s first world’s fair.

The Buffalo Soldiers of the 24th Infantry escorted the horse and wagon that pulled the bell across some two miles of Exposition grounds, through the streets of San Francisco to the Southern Pacific depot on 3rd street, and loaded onto a flatbed car destined for Philadelphia. The stars and stripes were festooned across the backdrop on an occasion where every American felt they had a stake in their country.

The presence of the Buffalo Soldiers, celebrated for their distinguished history, was a triumph for black Americans, yet served to heighten the mixed treatment they’d experienced at the world’s fair where messages promoting the achievements of blacks were intermingled with exhibits that were demeaning to California’s recently enfranchised black citizens.

Many blacks had visited the Panama-Pacific International Exposition just to see the Liberty Bell. For them, the bell had special significance. The Oakland Sunshine encouraged its readers to go view the patriotic icon because of its link to the fugitive slave Crispus Attucks, who was a casualty of the Boston Massacre and “the first martyr of the American Revolution.” On July 17, the paper wrote, “Let this Western world know that the blood of a Negro patriot has been largely instrumental in preserving the precious jewel of American independence.”

Next time you drive or walk through the South End historic district, imagine the glory of its maritime history and the last glimpse San Franciscans had of the Liberty Bell before its final trip back home to Philadelphia.

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