The bell tolls for thee in Old Town


A narrow passage around the organ in the Old Presbyterian Meeting House leads to a ladder, up to a small room, to three more ladders, and three more small rooms before reaching the top alcove where the bell sits.

The Meeting House bell tow

er is one of many in Old Town, towering over the rooftops and adding to the charm of the historic district, but this bell in the Meeting House is one of only a few that actually rings.

It was made down the street, said Donald C. Dahmann,the chairman of the History & Archives Committee at the Meeting House. The current bell dates back to 1843 when the meeting house caught fire and the old bell fell from the bell tower and broke.

The original bell came from England and was produced by the same manufacturer that made the bell in the Fairfax Courthouse. That bell was made in Alexandria, down the street, in TW & RC Smith foundry, said Dahmann. Alexandria DC is inscribed on the bell, referring back to when Alexandria was considered part of the District of Columbia.

When George Washington died, the bell at the Meeting House rang steadily for four days while Washingtons body lay in state. In those days, some people thought to be dead were buried alive, so Washington requested his body be left for four days before burial.

Bell beckoning
Bells were once used to communicate around town, whether as a call to church service or an alarm for fire or attack. The altitude of the tower carried the sound over the treetops.

During the day in Old Town, or on Sundays, bells can be heard around town but most are computer recordings played with a machine called a carillon, and the speakers are in the bell tower. Christ Church has a working bell in their tower, but it is rung by an electronic hammer instead of manually rocked with a rope. Although the church dates back to 1773, the bell tower was constructed in two phases and finally finished in the 1818. Accessing the bell is difficult, and there isnt much space in the actual bell room.

At the Downtown Baptist Church at 212 South Washington Street, the trip up the bell tower is not easy, especially the last few feet up a rickety wooden ladder to the cupola where four large speakers broadcast the sounds out to the street. The original bell is still there and still has a rope tied on, dangling through a few holes in the floors to the main level.

Many people tell us they love our bells, said Susan Manship, the Minister of Music & Senior Adults. Its interesting, theyre not really bells. Various tunes can be programmed to play from the tower.

Anatomy of sound
The bell at St. Marys Catholic Church is so large it can be seen from the street, but it too is surrounded by speakers. This cupola is more open, but has a wire screen to prevent birds and bats from making this their home. This bell was made on July 2, 1950, by the MC Shane Bell Foundry Co., in Baltimore, Maryland, and donated to the church by Irvin J. Struder on the feast of the blessed Virgin Mary, which is inscribed on the bell. It can still ring, but the pendulum part, known as the clapper or tongue, is broken in half.

There are bells in the clock tower at City Hall, and Meade Memorial Church on Alfred Street, as well.

Technically, a bell is an engineering feat. The thickness of the iron converges from the peak to the lip. The rest of the bell parts are named after the human body. From the top, there is the crown, neck, shoulder, dome, body or skirt, lip, mouth and tongue. Parts known as the ears and eyes are part of the crown as well.