11/19/08 1023 W, 1 I - + 15 - 12 Raleigh's Historic Fire Bell Comes Home

The following press release was released today, about the historic fire bell returned to the city in a ceremony this morning at Station 1. The event celebrated the transfer of the 1870 artifact from North Carolina State University to the Raleigh Fire Department. Mayor Charles Meeker, NCSU Chancellor James L. Oblinger, Fire Chief John McGrath, and Historian Mike Legeros (disguised on right) participated in the ceremony.

NBC17 Photo

Raleigh's Historic Fire Bell Comes Home
Had Been on NCSU Campus for 60 Years

Nobody can say how North Carolina State University (NCSU) came to have it, but today it was returned to its rightful owner – the City of Raleigh.

The object in question is a 1,000-pound, solid bronze bell that sat atop Raleigh’s City Hall through the last decades of the 19th century and the first 14 years of the 20th. For the past 60 years the bell has sat silently on the roof of NCSU’s Withers Hall.

Today NCSU Chancellor Dr. James L. Oblinger participated in the transfer of custody with Mayor Charles Meeker and Fire Chief John McGrath at a ceremony at Fire Station 1 on Dawson Street.

The ceremony was the epilogue of what started when NCSU architecture graduate student Matt Robbins noticed the bell around 2005 and it struck his curiosity hard. For the past few years, Mr. Robbins has been researching NCSU’s architectural history for his master’s thesis. The bell on Withers Hall just didn’t look right; it didn’t fit. It looked like an afterthought. Why, Mr. Robbins wondered, would such a magnificent bell be hidden away in a cupola on the roof of a building that has no tower? Mr. Robbins climbed onto the roof of the building for a close look. Climbing into the cupola, Mr. Robbins found the words: “Baltimore. Md. 1870 Joshua Regester & Sons” and the word “Metropolitan.”

True to form for any super 21st century sleuth, Mr. Robbins began wandering around Google, where he hurt pay dirt. On the website of former Raleigh Firefighter and department historian Mike Legeros, there appears a photograph of a group of Raleigh firefighters standing around a grounded bell. The writing: “& Sons was visible on the bell. Even more exciting: the bell in the photograph that accompanied a March 9, 1938 article in The Raleigh Times, had a chip identical to the mute bell on Withers Hall. The newspaper article told of the bell being removed from the City of Raleigh’s Morgan Street fire station to make way for an addition to the revenue building. The article said that the bell originally had been on the roof of Raleigh’s Metropolitan Hall.

Armed with this information, Mr. Robbins contacted Mr. Legeros who confirmed that the bell on the roof of Withers Hall had to be the City’s original fire bell. Mr. Robbins then brought the matter to the attention of Fire Chief McGarth, who promptly contacted NCSU Chancellor Oblinger. Their discussions brought about today’s official transfer of the historic fire bell back to the City’s custody.

Bell’s History

As indicated on the bell, it was placed on Metropolitan Hall in 1870. The building, located on Fayetteville Street between Exchange Street and Market Place, was a mixed-use facility. The City Hall offices were on the upper floors and the jail and police headquarters were in the basement. Part of the first floor served as a fire station. The other part of the floor served as a farmers’ market during the day and assembly hall and entertainment venue in the evening. The bell served a number of functions, including alerting the volunteer Raleigh Fire Department of the need to respond to an emergency.

In 1888, the City bell was connected to the newly installed electric telegraph fire alarm system. Fire alarms tolled the box number and the volunteer fire companies responded to specific street addresses. One of the City’s earliest efforts at noise suppression came in 1892 when the fire alarm bell was silenced between 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. Bells or gongs had been installed in fire stations and in the homes of many members of the Fire Department by this time, making it unnecessary to trouble the slumber of Fayetteville Street residents.

In 1912, the Raleigh Fire Department was reorganized as a paid, professional entity and the volunteer companies were disbanded. Two years later the City bell was moved to Fire Station 1 on West Morgan Street where it was placed in a tower built for training and for drying hoses. The bell was last rung at that location in 1930, upon the death of veteran firefighter Eugene A. Lasaster, who died off duty. The bell was removed in 1938 when the fire station tower was demolished.

The bell was installed at NCSU’s Withers Hall in 1948. It served to notify students of class times and replaced the steam whistle at Riddick Stadium that had served that purpose. It was last struck in 2006 as part of operational test during restoration of Wither’s Hall.

Moving the Bell

On Oct. 12, the Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue team removed the bell from its 60-year perch on the west Raleigh roof.

Chief McGrath said the City has engaged an expert in bell restoration and will follow his advice on what should be done to restore the 138-year-old bronze beauty. The restoration expert has already advised the Chief not to allow the bell to be polished, which is a terrible temptation for the fastidious firefighters.

Chief McGrath said that the too-long forgotten bell will be temporarily displayed at the Fire Department’s Keeter Training Center on South Wilmington Street. Tentative plans are for the historic bell to be a centerpiece in the Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center, which is to be built at the corner of McDowell and Hargett streets; the present location of the Police Department’s headquarters.

Prepared by: Jayne Kirkpatrick, Director, Public Affairs Dept.
For more information: Asst. Chief Rusty Styons, Fire Dept., 233-2136
Nov. 19, 2008

Related links:

http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/398.. (with reader comments!)
http://wake.mync.com/site/Wake/news/stor.. (with MJL footage)
Legeros - 11/19/08 - 17:58

Video of the entire ceremony is now available, http://raleigh.granicus.com/MediaPlayer...
Legeros - 11/21/08 - 19:44

Fascinating article . . when I get back to Raleigh, I’ll have to stop by to see the old bell. But that bell was not as ‘mute’ as one might think all those years. You see . . when Mr Robbins saw the bell he was interested in its history . . . but back in 1972 I was one of four budding engineering students who saw the bell and wondered if we could ring it! Once on top of Withers, not only did we find the fantastic bell, but a twin hammer motor driven ringing mechanism all ready to be fired up . . . but not without a bit of work. Alas, the old motor wouldn’t run . . so we pulled it off the roof, rebuilt it in our Sullivan Hall dorm room, and returned it some nights later . . YES . . it ran! We added a timer, made our escape, and retired to one of the outdoor stairwells on Cox Hall to listen for our success. Countdown . . SUCCESS . . . it rang . . . and rang . . . and rang . . I think for about 30 minutes before someone figured out how to turn it off. We were elated . . the sound was just as one might imagine . . deep and rich and wonderous. I repeated the stunt one more time – probably in 1974-1975 – before graduating with a BSEE in December of 1976. Wonderful days at NCSU . . . memories that will last forever.

P.S. . . you may wonder how I found this article. Just a few days ago I received an e-mail from Rebecca Morphis, Editor of the N.C. State Magazine requesting general interest info as to ‘afterhours’ activities during our years at NCSU. That got me thinking . . and with a little Googling . . found your excellent article!
Wayne Chism (Email) - 04/07/09 - 23:19

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