True Tales from Canton’s Past: Sound the Alarm

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The Blake Bell, which is to be preserved as part of the Community Preservation Act (photo by the author)

The Blake Bell, which is to be preserved as part of the Community Preservation Act (photo by the author)

The following is an excerpt from “Sound the Alarm,” the latest installment of True Tales from Canton’s Past by local historian George T. Comeau. The article tells the story of the Ponkapoag Fire Station and the current efforts to memorialize the firefighters through the preservation of the station’s original bell.

… The building was dedicated on Friday, February 1, 1889. Hundreds of people came to celebrate the building. The evening was filled with music, poems, and a small play. A song was sung in which the entire fire company sang: “Oh, how well the town responded when Hunt took the floor. Don’t you think if he had really asked it we would have had a thousand more? Oh, how many winters we have frozen in our little hut. Always wishing we had something better, but the wish seemed like an old chestnut. While we were playing with our engine pumping Fisher’s Brook, everyone wished we had a house for that engine, No matter how much it took… All up and down the whole creation, No matter where, when our bell rings out the alarm of fire, you bet your life we’re there.”

The bell so lauded in song would become an integral part of the alarm system in Canton. For some time a system of magnetos and phone lines had been in use and serviced by the local clockmaker. In 1894 the town appropriated $2,000 for a modern electric fire alarm system. The selection committee visited Stoneham, Milton, Melrose, and Hyde Park where systems were already in place. The contract was awarded to the Gamewell Company — still in existence today. When it was constructed, the Canton system consisted of 21 miles of wire divided into three circuits. Twenty-one pull boxes were installed across town — most of them on Washington Street and others near large factories and businesses.

The system was simple by today’s standards. A box had a locked door and inside when opened a small hook could be pulled down and the circuit would sound the alarm to the central station. Only “key holders” could open the door and sound the alarm. These men, known as fire wardens, would have to be reasonably sure there was a fire before giving the alarm. If a member of the general public saw a fire, he or she would need to run to the house of the key holder and get them to come and sound the alarm. Once triggered, the alarm was sounded by three tower strikers, which would use a system of weights and a hammer to strike the bells across town. One bell was in the steeple of the Baptist Church on Church Street, a second bell was the Revere Bell in the Unitarian Steeple at Canton Corner, and the third bell was the Sutton Company Bell at Ponkapoag Fire Station.

Each bell had a different size hammer, owing to the size of the bell and the necessity of the sound to travel far and consistently. The Revere Bell within the Unitarian steeple required a 35-pound hammer thrown at it with a 680-pound weight. The steel bell at the Baptist Church was not sufficiently loud enough at night, so a steam whistle was added at the Blue Hill Street Railway boiler on Bolivar Street. A blow of the whistle was sent every night at 7:05 p.m. to test the system and to give residents an accurate time. When a curfew was in place, the bells would ring every night at 8:50 p.m., signaling to kids they had ten minutes to get home …

See this week’s Canton Citizen to learn more about the Ponkapoag Fire Station and the historic Blake Co. Bell. Not a subscriber? Click here to order your subscription today.

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avatar Posted by on Jan 15 2015. Filed under Canton History, Features. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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