By Charley Githler
Historical markers and artifacts abound throughout the City of Ithaca. Two of those items, prominently displayed but largely ignored, are giant fire alarm bells. Both of them date back to the 19th century and are reminders of a less technological age, when ‘sounding the alarm’ would galvanize citizens and fire companies to action.
The threat of fire was a concern from Ithaca’s earliest days. In 1821, the year Ithaca was incorporated as a village, an ordinance was passed that said every building or household must have a full bucket of water on hand for each fireplace in the structure and an available ladder long enough to reach the top of their own roof. That decade, a cistern system, fed by a millpond on Six Mile Creek, was also devised to provide a better, more consistent water supply for fighting fires. Still, there was no alarm system yet and the strategy for dousing a fire was to throw buckets of water on it. Fires were frequent, and it wasn’t only the potent combination of wooden structures and candles or kerosene lamps. Arson was likely the cause of just as many of the fires as accidents. In any event, fighting fires was a high priority.
Over the next two decades, as the village experienced big multi-structured fires in 1833, 1840, 1842 and 1845, as well as numerous smaller fires, five fire companies were formed and equipment was acquired, including two pumpers, a hand truck for ladders and axes, lengths of hose and a wagon for buckets. A central firehouse – Firemen’s Hall – was built at the northeast corner of Tioga and Seneca Streets, where the Seneca Street Parking garage is now. It became part of the Village Hall, encompassing police headquarters and village (later city) government offices. That corner was, for many years, the nerve center of the community.
At the same time, the village was growing rapidly, and in the late 1840s and early 1850s, miles of new streets were being opened. In 1849, Plain Street was opened from Buffalo to Cascadilla Street, and Mill (Court) Street was opened from Albany to Plain. By 1851, Jay, Corn, Wheat, Second, Marshall, Varick and Washington Streets were opened, and Madison, Esty, Utica, Meadow and Fourth Streets were extended. With the new development, more cisterns were added. As the village began to sprawl, the need for an alarm became apparent.
Sometime around 1843, some of the village blacksmiths made an iron triangle four inches wide and six feet long that was suspended in the tower in the Village Hall. A rope hung down through the building to the police station on the ground floor to be pulled in the event of a fire. This system held until 1857, when it was discontinued and church bells were rung instead.
Then, in 1858, a 2000-pound steel bell, cast by Naylor & Vickers in Sheffield England and costing $684, was hung in the tower. As the village’s first fire bell, it seemed to bring general satisfaction all around and served for almost 18 years. This was the bell that was rung (and supplemented with ‘rockets’ for visual effect) for the village’s most devastating fire in August 1871. During that conflagration, buildings in the area bounded by Aurora Street on the east, Six Mile Creek on the south, State Street on the north, to the middle of the 100 block of East State Street on the west were burned to the ground. Eleven buildings were destroyed.
In 1866, Ezra Cornell donated a library to the citizens of Tompkins County across the street from the Village Hall on the southeast corner of Seneca and Tioga Streets. The caretaker of the library, who lived on the top floor, would watch the village during the evening from his rooms, and had a wire rigged to the bell in the tower across the street. If he saw a fire, he would yank the wire and sound the alarm.
Bells can be rung in celebration, too, and New Year’s Eve 1875 was just such an occasion, marking the start of the American centennial year 1876. Unfortunately, the fire bell was rung with such enthusiasm that it cracked, and was retired from service, much to the dismay of the public. That is the bell that is currently mounted (crack visible) in Thompson Park on North Cayuga Street, across Cascadilla Creek from Gimme! Coffee.
A new bell was soon acquired from the Meneely Bell Works in Troy, New York. This bell ultimately proved less satisfying and shorter-lived, lasting somewhat less than two years before cracking in May 1878.
Church bells were once again pressed into service until a third bell could be acquired that same summer from Naylor & Vickers in England. This giant, at 3160 pounds, required that a ramp be constructed from Buffalo Street to the top of the tower for it to be tugged into place.
The new bell was to be part of Ithaca life for the next 86 years, from 1878 until its official retirement in 1964 and would have been a familiar sound to anyone who lived downtown during its first half-century. It was the bell that rang for the Six Mile Creek flood of 1901, the 1906 Chi Psi fire that claimed the lives of four students and three volunteer firefighters, the Ithaca Academy fire in 1912, and the World War I Armistice in 1918. It was the alarm bell as the fire department modernized and became professional, but by the mid-twentieth century, it was replaced by more modern alarm methods. A long-time Ithaca resident, 92 years old and with seven decades of volunteer firefighting experience, says he has no recollection of having heard the bell used as an alarm. That bell is the one now mounted next to the sidewalk in front of Fire Department Headquarters at 310 West Green Street.
As historical artifacts go, both bells are in remarkably good shape, especially considering their age and decades of service. The sound of a city fire alarm bell has passed into history, but it’s worth pausing a moment to check them out the next time you’re walking by.