PHOTOS: Storied past of Burlington bell is set for new chapter


Published April 1, 2024 at 1:01 pm

Bell Burlington library fire history
The Burlington bell has had a unique history. Burlington Historical Society photo.

A once-forgotten relic that has become Burlington’s symbol of endurance could soon find a new home.

The Burlington town bell, created for practical use in 1894 and currently on display in front of the Burlington Central Library, is likely headed back into the hands of those it was originally intended for.

The bell was commissioned 130 years ago by town councillors to call members of the volunteer fire department during an emergency. It was made by the Buckeye Bell Foundry of Cincinnati, Ohio, a company that was known for creating the most ornate bells in North America.

Back then the loud ringing could be heard throughout the small town of Burlington and proved to be an effective way to summon the volunteer members of the brigade as well as to alert residents of the potential danger of a spreading fire.

“In those days, no television, no radio, no telephones and certainly no internet, it was an effective way to grab people’s attention,” says Robert Bell, a local history buff whose grandfather served the town as a volunteer firefighter.

While the method may seem crude by today’s standards, Bell points out that more than 100 years ago towns and villages were “less noisy” and that when a bell the size of this one — it weighs 1,000 lbs — would start to ring out you would hear it at great distances, especially at night.

Eventually, they found other uses for the bell which, again, by today’s standards seem quaint if not odd.

Attached to the tower of the old town hall on Elizabeth Street, the bell would be used as a reminder for workers.

“It would ring out at 7 a.m. to tell people to go to work, noon when to take lunch, one o’clock when lunch was over, and at six o’clock when it was time to go home,” explains Bell. “Clocks and watches weren’t readily owned by most people so this method worked. Employers really liked the concept because it got people to work on time with few excuses.”

By the early 1950s, after serving the town for almost 60 years, the bell was decommissioned when the building was sold and the municipal offices moved.

The bell went into storage and was largely forgotten save for the time when vandals stole it. Luckily a sharp-eyed constable noticed a heavily laden car driving around town and pulled over the hoodlums who were largely pranksters looking for a unique souvenir they thought no one cared about.

But William Gilbert cared. As head of the library board, Gilbert remembered the bell and decided to bring it back and had it placed in front of the Elizabeth Street Branch, across from where the town hall was once located. It moved to the Central Library on New Street when it opened in 1970 and has remained there.

Now, the fire department would like it back.

The Burlington Fire Department is planning to create a memorial for firefighters at its headquarters located at 1255 Fairview Street and wants the bell to be its centrepiece.

Since the fire department and the library system are both City of Burlington departments, the move would not be very complicated and both parties are working together to make it happen.

“It’s the appropriate thing to do,” said Bell. “The library has looked after it well and saved the bell at a time when such historical pieces were being discarded. We are lucky it never got sold for scrap metal. It looks good on them. But the fire department will give it a place of honour and that is what the bell deserves.”

(all photos from the Burlington Historical Society)


Burlington fire library bell

An official looks over the bell after it was removed from the town hall. The inscription mentions the names of town officials from 1894.


Library bell fire Burlington

The bell rings out at the opening of the Central Library in 1970


library bell fire Burlington

The bell as it originally stood in front of the Central Library


bell fire library Burlington

The old town hall with the bell stationed in the tower.


bell library Burlington fire

The bell as it stands at the Central Library.

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