Atlanta Fire Bell Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AtlantaFireBell/
Standing in the open yard outside of Atlanta’s Fire Station No. 1 in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood is an old and rare Atlanta artifact — a 149 year old fire bell. This bell was part of the sound of Atlanta for more than 40 years, tolling at fires, funerals and celebrations. It tolled the passing of Benjamin Hill, noted Georgia politician in 1882, Alexander Stevens, Vice President of the Confederacy; in 1883 and newspaperman Henry Grady in 1889. It also tolled for the funeral of Augusta Hill, for whom it was named.
Atlanta in 1867, just three years after being burned by Sherman, had unpaved streets, a population of about 15,000 and was a growing town with a host of civic needs caused by rapid rebuilding in the postwar years. Above this community was an empty cupola atop the new Fire Station No. 1 centrally located at Broad and Alabama Streets. There were no public funds to buy a bell for this belfry, so the ladies of Atlanta put on a week-long fair to raise the money to pay for the bell. A top fundraiser’s name would be embossed on the bell and that is why the dedication on the bell, still readable today, is: Dedicated to the Public Service In honor of Miss Augusta Hill July, 1867.
The bell was manufactured in West Troy, NY–there were no bell foundries in the South at that time. It’s a large bell that weighs 1,995 pounds. Its finish was a “beautiful, clear and highly polished metal” according to the Atlanta Intelligencer newspaper it arrived in Atlanta on August 1st, 1867. That finish is greatly worn away at this point.
In 1910 the bell was decommissioned. When it rang for a fire, the new telephones at the fire house were flooded with calls… just when the firemen needed open phone lines to fight the fire. It was moved to Grant Park where it remained for many years, until it was moved again to the top of a training tower at Fire Station No. 7. When Fire Station No. 7 was closed a few years ago, the bell and a few other architectural artifacts were moved to Fire Station No. 1, where it remains today.
Let’s Recognize and Better Preserve This Piece Of Atlanta History –
The bell is currently on display outdoors, without a sign or marker explaining its significance. Its “clear” and “polished” finish is has been replaced with a thick, brownish green patina. It is debatable whether the patina, which has taken more than a century to accumulate, should be left alone or if the finish can be improved by professional restoration.
There are dents all over the bell from it having been struck by hammers, especially near the bottom. There is a large crack along the bottom of the bell and a piece about four inches wide and one inch tall has been broken off completely. A few of the letters in the embossed dedication are worn down and on their way to disappearing entirely. Decorative piping that encircles the lower part of the bell has been bashed away in many places.
It is time for this irreplaceable relic of our past to be better protected and appreciated. It should be sheltered and its story preserved for the generations to come. It may come down to another fund-raising effort, like the ladies in 1867.
You can see the bell at 71 Elliot St. in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood. More information, including a photograph of Augusta Hill, can be found on the bell’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AtlantaFireBell/
Editor’s Note: Bells were extremely valuable to major cities before phone lines were available. Church bells could sound danger, mobilize firemen and call people to events, not only religious. But a fire bell was a treasured object to a growing city. They were used in surprisingly sophisticated ways. For example, when this fire bell was installed, it could coordinate firemen to certain Atlanta city wards by the numbers of rings, thus enabling almost instant communication between fire stations. Its addition saved countless Atlanta lives and structures.
There was only one bell in Atlanta during and after the Civil War. If they were so valuable, why weren’t there more bells in Atlanta in 1867? During the Civil War the many bells in Atlanta (mostly church bells) were donated to the war effort, since metals were desired by the military. The only Atlanta bell to survive the Civil War was in Wesley Chapel and is currently located in the Atlanta First United Methodist Church; read more about the oldest Atlanta church bell here.
The bell featured in this article was the first one purchased for Atlanta public needs after the Civil War. In 1867, the Atlanta Fire Department required a new steam engine and a fire bell. Like the author indicates, funds were low, so the city hosted a week-long “Ladies Fire Bell Fair” on April 30th, 1867. There were baseball games and other festive fair activities. The best baseball team won an ebony baseball bat.
At the fair there was also a voting contest among the women. The woman to receive the most votes would have her name inscribed on the steam engine, while the runner-up would have her name inscribed on the bell. Emma Latimer won the contest, but declined to have her name put on the steam engine, naming it Castalia. Augusta Hill came in second, thus her name was inscribed on the bell.
Augusta Hill, or Gussie Hill Thompson, was once considered the most beautiful woman in Atlanta. She married Joseph Thompson Jr., son of Dr. Joseph Thompson, a retired physician who made a fortune in hotels and was a leader in early Atlanta history. Gussie Thompson and the ladies raised $999.35, with a generous male Atlanta resident donating a final $.65 to make it a round $1,000, for the new steam engine and fire bell.
Blessed with beauty and wealth, unfortunately Gussie Thompson would die young on May 17th, 1878 from consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis) in the home of her distant relative former Georgia Governor Alfred H. Colquitt. She was battling the disease for years. Augusta “Gussie” Hill Thompson was only 34 years old when she passed away. Her gravestone is one of the more elaborate markers found in historic Oakland Cemetery.
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I spoke with the AHC about the Bell. Unfortunately, the Fire Deparment wants to keep it. Hopefully, they will move it inside out of the elements. Wishful thinking no doubt.