Sounding the Alarm…in a Big Way!

September 11, 2014 · Collections ·
Hartford’s long serving fire alarm bell can be viewed on the grounds of CHS. CHS 1931.14.0

Hartford’s long serving fire alarm bell can be viewed on the grounds of CHS. CHS 1931.14.0

In an age when apps are increasingly becoming a preferred way to alert people—to severe weather, a highway closure, an amber alert, a home break-in—it’s fun to look at how emergency information could be transmitted a century or more ago.

As city fire departments became more organized and sophisticated in the mid-to-late 19th century they adopted new technology like the telephone to communicate with individual fire companies scattered about a municipality. But this was not the only way to communicate information. I grew up in a small town in which the local fire department used a large klaxon horn mounted on a tower at the station to communicate information. A numerical code linked to specific fire box locations around town was utilized. The horn would sound out the numeral(s) of the fire box, and anyone with the box code (almost everyone in my town had one) could determine the approximate location of the emergency. The horn also sounded a time check at 6 PM each day. This seemed pretty high tech to me as a kid in the 1950s. But not so fast…

Detail of the casting data on the Hartford fire alarm bell. CHS 1931.14.0

Detail of the casting data on the Hartford fire alarm bell. CHS 1931.14.0

It turns out that beginning in the mid-1860s Hartford’s newly organized city fire department used a large—a very large—bronze alarm bell to sound the location code for the fire emergency, thus summoning firefighters from across the city. Suspended in a tall tower behind the fire station on Pearl Street, the ringing of the 4.5 ton bell (with a diameter of 6.5 feet) could be heard across the city as a 100 pound clapper struck it, alerting firefighters (and the citizenry in general) from one end of town to the other.

This circa 1908 view shows the bell suspended atop a tall tower off Pearl Street. CHS collection

This circa 1908 view shows the bell suspended atop a tall tower off Pearl Street. CHS collection

Cast—or more precisely recast–in 1881 by the Jones & Co. Troy Bell Foundry of Troy, New York, it replaced (and recycled the bronze from) an 1867 fire bell that had cracked after years of service. Like the fire horn in my hometown the bell also provided a citywide time check, in this case at noon, 6 PM and 9 PM. For the next forty years the bell served Hartford, until a more modern telephone communication system rendered it obsolete. Retired in 1921, the bell was donated to CHS a decade later. However, since CHS, then housed at the Wadsworth Atheneum, did not have the space to display the bell, it was stored by the fire department until August 1953. CHS, having acquired its own building (formerly the home of inventor/industrialist Curtis Veeder) in 1950, finally had the space to adequately exhibit the massive bell.

Hartford artist Louis Orr painted this impressionistic view of the fire station and bell tower in 1908. CHS 1977.40.0

Hartford artist Louis Orr painted this impressionistic view of the fire station and bell tower in 1908. CHS 1977.40.0

So next time you visit CHS, walk over to our Asylum Avenue parking lot near the auditorium wing and take a look at this now silent sentinel, keeping guard over its “new” home.

 

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Please note, CHS will be undergoing renovations from Aug 28 – Sept 6. During this time, we will not be wheelchair accessible. We apologize for the inconvenience.