The Council Bluffs Fire Department hopes to restore a bell that rang throughout the city for more than 100 years.
The fire station bell, forged and cast in St. Louis on the Fourth of July in 1876, tolled for fire calls and firefighter funerals at a number of stations in the city. It was last at Station No. 6 on North Broadway until a few years ago.
In the early days, “The bell was used to let the firefighters know what area of town a fire was in,” Council Bluffs Fire Chief Justin James said. “It’s a pretty good-sized bell.”
After L.M. Rumsey & Company of St. Louis created the bell, it hung and rang out from a yard between city hall and an old downtown station.
For many years, the bell hung atop the old headquarters building on Kanesville Boulevard – where the Omni Center docking area is now located.
Cal Petersen, who served with the Council Bluffs Fire Department from 1963 through 1995 and is the department’s history buff, published a book about the department nearly 20 years ago. He said there were issues with the structure supporting the bell at the old headquarters building, so it was removed from headquarters.
“It’s a heavy bell, and there were structural problems with the roof,” Petersen said.
The bell then moved to Station No. 6. Along with ringing out fire calls – and after, when more modern means of transmitting fire calls were installed – the bell tolled as funeral processions for firefighters passed.
Petersen recalled two funeral processions for certain when the bell was deployed.
William Cabett died of a heart attack while on a fire call at Katelman Hardware on South Main Street in 1952. Additionally, the bell was used for the funeral of Waldo Merril, who died of a heart attack in 1962 while still in his position as fire chief.
The bell sat in a city storage facility for three years after the land where it was located at Station No. 6 had to be leveled as part of an Indian Creek improvement project.
The department is now working to restore the bell to its former glory.
James said plans call for a tower to be erected outside the new headquarters station on South Fourth Street. The brick edifice would feature pictures and plaques about the history of the Council Bluffs Fire Department, which was established in 1854 and became a professional department in 1883.
“People sometimes forget how long the city and fire department have been around. A lot of the city’s history has been in conjunction with the fire department,” James said. “This will be a nice public art project. It’ll really tell our history.”
Both James and Petersen noted that locating the bell at the downtown station would put the bell in proximity to most of the city’s funeral homes.
“We hope to again be able to ring the bell as funeral processions go by,” Petersen said. “A tolling of the bell would be a nice touch.”
The department enlisted a local firm to put together a rendering of the tower and estimates the cost at about $80,000-$120,000. A final plan for the tower has not been completed.
James said he hopes to raise funds through grants and donations. A few ideas include donation bricks that would make up the base of the tower and the possibility of a new chapter on recent history and reissue of Petersen’s book to raise additional funds.
“We think it’s pretty important,” James said. “We hope the public does, too. It’s a neat piece of history.”