Friendship Firehouse Bell
by Catherine Weinraub, Friendship Historian
Given the expansive history and locations of Friendship Firehouse, it is amazing to consider that the Company has had only three bells. The first bell was procured in 1839 for their location on King Street between Alfred and Columbus (locations of their engine house could be a whole other article). According to the Friendship Minute Book on April 8th, it “reported having purchased a Bell for Engine House weighing 189 lbs for $34.20.” The Company also “ordered that the Bell be rung upon every alarm of fire and toll when necessary to notify members of meeting.” As the company grew and more equipment was obtained, that by-law would change a little to read, “The Bell shall be tolled preparatory to each meeting and rung when there is a fire indicating by distinct strokes the ward in which is occurred and in return of apparatus after an alarm shall indicate the return of each piece.” This first bell, which was a ship bell, was used until the fire of the wooden Engine House in 1855.
With a new Engine House, the Company bought a new bell. Interestingly however, it was not mentioned in the Minute Book. There are two mentions in 1845 to repairing the bell and in 1851 “On motion J. Bowlz was instructed to fix the Bell the best he could & charge the expense to the Company.” Clearly a new bell was needed. John Muir, who complied the history of the Company, wrote, “A new bell, weighing 350 lbs., and costing $150, was bought of Mr. Carr, same year, the old bell and engine being taken in part payment.” We can only hope that perhaps one day more research will unearth their second purchase.
Now here’s where it gets interesting in the tale of the second bell. It breaks within a year and a new one was needed. However, there are two stories that have been passed down. More often heard is the bell got struck by lighting. According to an August 9th, 1856 Gazette article, “The steeple of the Friendship Fire Company was struck with lightning yesterday afternoon, and slightly damaged. The steeple of the Court House, was also struck, but slightly damaged. Mr. John Demaine, was struck and prostrated, but not seriously injured.” We could take this at face value as they mentioned only the steeple, not the bell. But the bell could have been damaged as the steeple of the Firehouse caused issues from the very beginning for the Company and was repaired numerous times; eventually being shortened to the cupola we have today. According to John Muir, our historian of the period, the bell was broken saluting a visiting Fire Company. No newspaper article was found to speak of a visiting Company or broken bell. However Mr. Muir was with the Company in 1855. We have to draw our own conclusions until further evidence is brought forward.
Throughout 1856 the Company searched for a new bell. The Minute Book cites this search many times. On Monday evening Sept 1, 1856:
“On motion a committee of 5 was approved by the Pres to solicit contributions to aid us in purchasing a new Bell.” Three other notations throughout 1856 and into 1857 mention the search as well. While it was not noted in the Minute Book when they received the new bell, the Alexandria Gazette offers an interesting report. On March 24, 1857 it reported, “The bell of this Company, purchased last year, having been accidentally injured, a new one weighing about 600 lbs., and costing, with its fixtures, about $300, has just been received by the Company from the foundry of Register & Webb, Baltimore, and is represented to be of excellent tone, Key of D.
The old bell, on being removed from the steeple, was thrown from the roof of the Engine House to the ground, 35 feet, without any increased injury thereto.
This large and efficient Company has now a handsome Engine House, an imposing steeple, quite a large bell, and excellent apparatus, the whole of which has been paid in full.”
Now that the third and final bell was secured, it should have been a prosperous time for the Friendship Company. However as the Civil War began in 1861, soldiers arrived in Alexandria. One paper mentions, “The bell of the Friendship Engine House has been tolled for several nights for the purpose of attracting a sufficient number of the members to hold a meeting, but a quorum, we believe, cannot be obtained. The president of the company and a number of its members are absent from the city.” In 1862 the Minute Book stated, “Hiting [sic] upon this assurance the Friendship essayed to resume its organization, but on tapping it’s bell to obtain a meeting of the members, word came from the provost office that unless the bell was stopped all persons found in the Engine House would be arrested and sent to the Slave Penn.” Although it would be a tough time for the Company and Station, the bell remained intact.
After the Civil War, there was little mention of the bell, except to change the rope. The last reference was 1926. The Engine House went through another tough time, this one of neglect and disrepair, but the station and bell survived, eventually becoming a museum and all was not lost!