The history of the fire bell begins shortly after the formation of the Bel Air Fire and Salvage Company in 1890. There was much talk in the town about the need for some type of fire alarm system to alert the volunteers and citizens of a fire.
In November of 1890, a committee was even formed to solicit assistance from the county commissioners in purchasing and hanging a bell to be used for a fire alarm system. For whatever reason, the talk died down and no further action was taken towards a fire alarm system.
Again in October of 1891, another committee was appointed to address the fire alarms issue, but it to did not come to fruition.
In October of 1893, a serious fire occurred in town in the middle of the night. It had gained great headway before many of the town inhabitants were aware of the danger and it was over before a majority knew there had even been a fire. This brought back the discussions about the town needing some type of fire alarm system. The town commissioners even said they would be willing to make an appropriation towards purchasing and erecting a bell to be used for a fire alarm system.
Committees were formed, propositions received and demonstrations of different alarm systems were held, but to no avail, as the effort died after several months.
In December of 1897, a movement was afoot to build a tower in front of the Harford County Courthouse and place a large bell in it. Another suggestion was for the town to lease the old Bel Air Academy building on Pennsylvania Avenue (and thus the bell located in its tower). The opposition to this plan was that the location was poor and the size of the bell was small and would not be loud enough.
On January 21, 1898, a meeting of the town citizens was held in the Harford County courthouse to undertake the proposition to establish a fire alarm system in the town. The system being discussed was a 1000 lb. bell with electrical attachments and a bell tower, which would have to be erected. The cost was determined be $1000 dollars. A vote was held and the results indicated that it was deemed unadvisable for the town to incur the expense due to the present condition of its finances. However, at this meeting a resolution was adopted requesting the town commissioners purchase such apparatus as was needed for the fire company (a hook and ladder carriage), but the matter of an electric fire alarm system would remain in abeyance until there was an improvement in the financial condition of the town.
On January 27, 1903, another meeting was held in the Harford County Courthouse to again discuss the issue of a practical fire alarm system for the town. A committee consisting of Walter Finney (Chairperson), Milton A. Reckord and James Reynolds was appointed and given the task of looking into a fire alarm system.
In April of 1903 the fire alarm committee went before the town commissioners and reported substantial progress in getting subscriptions for the system. They asked the commissioners for an appropriation for the system. The town commissioners promptly appointed a committee to join the existing committee and ask the county commissioners to erect a belfry on the courthouse for a bell.
It is not known how the events unfolded, but on July 29, 1903 a fire bell arrived in Bel Air. It had recently been purchased with subscriptions from residents, and appropriations from the Town of Bel Air and Harford County. The bell weighed over 2000 lbs. and once mounted in the courthouse belfry it will be able to be heard for miles.
September 4, 1903 saw the start of construction on a cupola on top the courthouse to house the bell and its workings. On October 13, 1903 the bell was raised and placed in position in the cupola atop the courthouse. For the next month work continued on finishing the cupola and mounting the connections and mechanism for ringing the bell.
It had been decided that the bell would be sounded from either of two telephone exchanges in the town. Residents would cal one of the two exchanges to report a fire; and with the use of electronics, the exchange would then ring the bell to alert for a fire.
In an article dated April 4, 1904, the bell is referred to as “BIG WALTER.” The bell had a name! The article also mentioned that “BIG WALTER” rang 6, then 12, indicating a fire in the northwestern section of town. This is the only time where a certain ring sequence is mentioned as having a certain meaning as to the location of the fire in the town. It is well known that after the purchase of the fire companies first motorized apparatus and the fire company started responding outside the town limits that the bell would ring 6 times for fires in town and 12 times for fires outside of town.
Throughout the years, the bell would ring and awaken the members of the company and the citizens of the town for a fire. On May 2, 1937 at 4:00 a.m. a fire was discovered in the Modiste Dress Shop on Main Street in Bel Air. Although the bell rang almost continuously, only two firemen responded to the alarm promptly, the bell not being adequate to awaken those who reside some distance away. Fortunately, the upstairs tenants who had detected the smell of smoke and reported the fire kept the doors closed until the firemen arrived and brought the small fire under control.
Immediately the fire company started looking into alternatives to the bell. Funds would need to be raised and a system purchased. The fire company decided to purchase an electric siren and place it on the top of the recently constructed hose tower located to the rear of the Main Street station.
The fire company purchased a Federal Electronic Siren in April of 1938 and by late June of 1938 the bell was placed out of service as a fire alarm signaling device. The siren would now take its place and sound seven times within a minute and a half to signal a fire.
The bell remained in the courthouse cupola until September of 1967 when it was removed. Once lowered to the ground, onlookers were surprised to see the inscription “THE BEL AIR FIRE AND SALVAGE COMPANY” on the side of the bell. They had no idea the bell belonged to the fire company. The bell was hauled to the county highways shop in Hickory for storage until a decision could be made.
In October 1967 the fire company requested the bell be returned to the fire company so that it could be placed in front of the Dallam Avenue (now Hickory Avenue) station. The county refused the request and decided the bell would remain at the courthouse. In December of 1967 the bell was placed on a concrete pedestal in front of the courthouse. Underneath the bell was placed a time capsule with a specifically written prayer, a poem and signatures of several dozen people who worked on the bell removal and relocation project.
In 1981 the possibility was being entertained by the county to remount the bell back into the court house cupola. The fire company once again asked the county if the bell could be returned and mounted on display at the fire station. Once again the county refused and the bell was remounted into the courthouse cupola.
In 1998 the fire company had decided to build a new fire station on the Hickory Avenue property. This would entail demolition of the existing fire station and rebuilding on the same lot. The fire company once again entered into negotiations with the county for the relocation of the bell from the courthouse cupola to the fire station on Hickory Avenue. This time the fire company had also secured donations from Williams Crane Company and private citizens to cover the removal of the bell. The county and the fire company came to an agreement.
In late 1999 the bell was removed from the courthouse cupola and shipped back to the McShane Bell Company of Baltimore. This was the original company who had forged the bell over 90 years ago. They also agreed to store the bell until it was ready for placement on display in front of the new fire station.
In 2000 the bell was delivered and mounted in a special display area in front of the Hickory Avenue fire station. The ringing mechanism was reconnected to a button inside the fire station and the bell is rung for special events.