NY fire department restoring its 119-year-old fire bells

By Rick Pfeiffer
The Niagara Gazette

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — It might have been the first time the 2,000 pound fire bell tolled since it went out of service in 1923.

But Thursday morning, Falls Fire Department Chief Mark Gray gave it a tap and the sound was almost pitch perfect.

"I didn't want to hit it too hard before they took it away," Gray said with a smile. "But I won't be here when they come back, so they wanted me to hear it before I retire."

Gray and other members of the fire department watched as the cast iron bell that once hung in the tower of Firehouse #3 on Niagara Avenue and a second, 1,000-pound bell, taken from the old LaSalle Fire Department bell tower at Buffalo Avenue and 71st Street, were loaded on to a trailer and sent on their way to the McShane Bell Foundry in Glen Burnie, Md.

The foundry, established in 1859 and still in operation, was where the Falls fire bell was cast in 1895. The foundry owners still have a record of the order of the bell, hand-written on yellowed paper, contained in a dust-covered ledger,

"We're still making (bells)," Joe Bennett, an employee of the McShane foundry said. "We're gonna take these back now and we'll blast them and polish them and when they come back, they'll look like gold."

The restoration of the bells, which have been on display recently at the Fireman's Memorial Park by the Royal Avenue Fire Hall, has been a pet project for Gray. He'll retire from the department today, after 36 years as a firefighter.

"I wanted to leave something behind," he said, "and I was at Forest Lawn Cemetery, and they have a bell at their front gate, and I heard it ring. I thought, wouldn't it be great if we could do that with our bells."

Alarm bells are an iconic part of the history of many fire departments. The Falls bells were used back when volunteers provided fire protection to the city.

When flames were spotted, the bells would toll to alert the volunteers. They continued to toll from 1895 until 1923, when they were retired for more modern means of communication.

Gray began to research the bells and was stunned to find the original bell foundry was still open and operating. On a vacation trip that took him near the foundry, Gray decided to drop in and see if the bells could be restored.

William Parker, whose family has run the business all these years, was excited by the opportunity to put the bells back in service.

"It sounded like an amazing project to us," Parker said. "Particularly since 9/11, we've been working with fire departments around the country on projects like this."

Parker noted the larger of the two Falls fire bells is the same size as the Liberty Bell.

Each bell is unique and has its own specific musical note," Parker said. "They're like a fine cello, they are historical musical instruments."

Bennett said he can't wait to get the bells back to the foundry and get to work.

"It's pretty neat and pretty typical for us (to do a restoration like this)," Bennett said. "They will look exactly as they did when they were first hung in the fire hall. You can't discount how long they've been around and they sound, today, the same way they did when they came out of the mold."

Gray noted that when the bells were first ordered, the cost was 15 1/2 cents per pound, or about $375 for the largest bell. Today, that same bell would cost $47,000 to create.

"That's why we said we need to preserve these," Gray said.

The restoration process will also include electrifying the bells so that they can be tolled at events like the annual Falls firefighter memorial service in October and the 9/11 memorials. If all goes well, Bennett and Parker said the bells could be back in the Falls in time for this year's 9/11 event.

"I want to be able to come back (for the 9/11 Memorial) and hear them ring," Gray said.

Fire Chief Tom Colangelo said the restored bells will be featured prominently.

"(The bells) are going to be a big part of the park," Colangelo said. "It's going to be pretty nice."

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(c)2014 the Niagara Gazette (Niagara Falls, N.Y.)

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