Nothing New — An alarming tale: The bells of Aberdeen

In the early days of Aberdeen’s existence, the town was composed of rows of wooden structures sitting on three-foot high pilings, fronted by slatted sidewalks lining plank and sawdust streets. In time, the old method of fire fighting, the bucket brigade, was replaced by old Tiger, a hand-pumped fire engine, which was augmented with the purchase of a Metropolitan steam pumper in 1902. No less important to the fire department was the bell that alerted the citizenry and fire brigade to an impending calamity.

In early 1897, a train arrived at the Aberdeen railroad station carrying a fire bell purchased for $160.00 from a foundry in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bell and fixtures had a net weight of 1,400-pounds and took a great deal of “rustling” by the firefighters to get it to the engine house and later into the bell tower. For the next half-dozen years it alerted the citizenry and fire team to the ever present danger common in wooden towns. It was last heard for the last time on the morning of October 16, 1903 when an inferno-like blaze destroyed the central business district. The conflagration began in a huge, decrepit three-story rooming house next door to the almost new fire station. As the fire grew, it leapt to the hose tower and with a mad rush the firemen were able evacuate their headquarters of its human and equine workforce before the structure was consumed by flames.

By the time it was extinguished, the fire had cut a wide swath from south F Street to Broadway, decimating seven city blocks and taking three human lives. Lying in the ashes was the town’s fire bell. The flames and intense heat that it baked in took out the temper, leaving it unusable. On July 4, 1905 it was featured on the Aberdeen Fire Department parade float, labeled as “Aberdeen’s Liberty Bell”, before being relegated to a vacant lot at Market and H Streets for the next twenty years. There had been plans to sell it for scrap, but many pioneers saw it as an important relic of the old Aberdeen and in 1925 it was moved to Roosevelt [now Sam Benn] Park for exhibition. Today it stands mute in front of the main fire station on East Market Street, available for public inspection 110 years after it rang for the last time.

Aberdeen was now without a fire bell and until such a time as the city could acquire a new one, the Methodist Church at the northeast corner of First and F streets offered up its carillon for the city’s use as an emergency alarm. It served in that capacity until December when the city was loaned a bell by A.G. Long, representative for a Portland fire equipment firm.

As the city was reconstructed in stone, Aberdeen saw the erection of its first real city hall. The new stone structure, a mix of Norman and Oriental architecture, was designed by the local firm of Reid & Briggs with its most striking feature being a 72-foot tall hose and bell tower. The city placed an order with the McShane Bell Foundry Company of Baltimore, Maryland. This bell, the largest the city had ever owned, was a shiny, bronze, four-foot-tall beauty embossed with the names of the city officials and council members. At noon on September 21, 1905, the new bell boomed out its pleasant tone for the first time and would continue to do so for the next twenty years.

In 1925 an engineering study was performed on the building and found that the 2,600 pound bell (plus an additional 500 pounds in hanging apparatus) was too heavy for the aging brick tower. There was a very real risk that a high wind could bring the bell down onto the brick building. Prompt action was taken by the city leaders and on October 17, 1925, after 20 years of service, the great bell tolled for the last time from atop city hall — and then removed. The dramatic, romantic peal of the fire bell has not been heard in Aberdeen since.

Within days a more modern, lightweight alarm was installed. It was a $500, 48-inch long siren featuring a 40-inch-radius horn that blasted a loud, blaring, shriek heard all the way to Hoquiam. The horn would be used in emergencies as well as celebratory events, with one of the more notable alarms sounded on May 21, 1927. When the news of Colonel Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris reached the offices of the Aberdeen Daily World at 1:32 pm, the message was swiftly forwarded to the fire department and within 30 seconds the shrill whine of the siren brought the city streets to a joyous halt as the news was spread to the populace.

One tolled in a town built of wood, and struck for the final time when that town was destroyed by fire. The other rang in the same city, now rebuilt with the permanence of stone and concrete. Those two bells carry a physical connection to two distinctly different Aberdeens, and though they are now silent, their history should never be forgotten

Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and gets plenty steamed every time the bell in Sam Benn Park is vandalized by some idiot with a can of spray paint.