The Firehouse Bell

    One of the most notable features of Station 1 is a bell tower that highlights the front facade.  Nestled in the tower is a 125 year old bell.  The Naylor Vickers Co., in Sheffield, England cast the bell in 1880.  It weighs about 1400 pounds, is 46 inches in diameter, and is 56 inches tall, in its carriage.  The Naylor Vickers Company only cast bells for about twenty years, stopping production due to problems with the quality of steel in the 19th century.  They did cast a large bell (nearly eight feet in diameter) for the San Francisco Fire Department to use as an alarm bell.  The Naylor Vickers Company is still in business and was the manufacturer of fighter planes during both World Wars.

    The bell's journey to Martinsville began with a casual comment by James Guerra, Station 1 architect.  He had included a bell tower from the very first design and it was readily accepted as part of the '"look" of a firehouse.  Since the Fire Department did not own a bell, the search was on to locate a bell that would grace the tower.  After several dead ends, Mr. Guerra provided information about a possible candidate.

    On East Jersey Avenue in Elizabeth, New Jersey, stands a building that was once the home of the Third Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth.  The congregation had long since left the building and, after sitting abandoned for several years, the building was purchased by Marlowe Ferguson, who converted it into the Elizabeth Playhouse, a rather off, off, off Broadway theater.  Despite the damaging effects of weather, vandalism, and salvage, the original bell still hung in the church tower.  After a brief description of the firehouse project and the need for a bell, Mr. Ferguson agreed to donate his bell, with two conditions.  The Fire Department had to move the bell, absorbing any expense associated with the move, and attend a performance of the Elizabeth Playhouse.

    Mr. Ferguson insisted that the volunteers visit the bell in the tower before they accepted the donation.  The climb upward to the bell entailed one staircase, climbing up one level of scaffold staging, and several ladders, each one more rickety than the last.  Finally, after pushing open a small hatch five levels above the ground, the bell stood, surrounded and encrusted in 100 years of pigeon droppings!

    Plans were quickly made to move the bell and move it back to Martinsville.  Many trips were taken up in the tower to measure, plan and brainstorm until a scheme was hatched to recover the bell.  With the lack of headroom above the bell, it was necessary to laterally move the bell about ten feet, in order for the crane to lower it to the street.  No small task, given the bell weighed an estimated 1500 pounds.

    An intrepid band of members, the "Bell Team", arrived early on a Saturday morning and constructed a timber carriage way to the edge of the tower.  Every timber, tool, and pipe had to be carried up the many levels of the church tower, one at a time, and it took longer to assemble the needed materials than to actually move the bell!  Fortunately, almost half of the pigeon droppings (nearly three feet) had been removed which assisted in the placement of the timbers.  Once everything was in place, the frame on which the bell slowly rolled to the tower opening.

    Two weeks later, on a Sunday morning, the "Bell Team" again assembled in Elizabeth and met a crane.  After some precarious moments, the bell swung free of the former church bell tower and was placed on a truck for the trip to Martinsville.  The bell was taken to Station 2, and then moved to Linden, where it was sand blasted and painted.  The following Spring, the "Bell Team", moved the bell to the new firehouse and, in a steady rain, installed the bell in the tower.  Shortly after the bell's installation, members of the Fire Department and their spouses boarded a bus and attended an excellent performance at the Playhouse.