After Century Of Silence, Old South Bell Rings

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The bell at the Old South Meeting House. (Curt Nickish/WBUR)
The bell at the Old South Meeting House. (Curt Nickish/WBUR)

Boston’s oldest clock tower has rung out for the first time in almost a century and a half.

Old South Meeting House, the Puritan church where Benjamin Franklin was baptized and the gathering place where the Boston Tea Party was planned, has been silent since 1876, after the brick building was nearly destroyed in the Great Boston Fire. On Thursday, that silence came to an end.

When the last strike reverberated away into the sound of raindrops on the roof above, horologist David Hochstrasser breathed a sigh of relief.

"No one alive has seen this clock actually strike a bell," he said almost wearily. "I’ve had a lot of doubts and a lot of worries along the way."

Hochstrasser’s been hooking up the 1766 tower clock to ring the bell hourly. He's been at work ever since the bell was raised to the belfry in October to fanfare. As a choir sang and a crane gently lifted the 876 pounds of cast bronze into the clock tower, Mary Holland in the crowd below craned her neck and camera.

"It seems a little hokey, you know, like we're grown up and jaded now, but it gave me goosebumps," she said excitedly. "This is our history. This is America, you know, the Revolution! It was really cool."

It was especially cool, because this bell was cast in 1801 by Paul Revere. It’s been hanging in the First Baptist Church in the Boston suburb of Westborough. But the church recently closed, and the remaining members, including Joanne Nelson, agreed to let Revere’s bell go.

"Today was really very emotional, watching it go up," she said. "But this is where it belongs. It's gonna ring."

And so it did for the first time Thursday at noon. James Storrow’s heart swelled with pride.

"It felt like something I was put here to do," said Storrow, a member of the old, wealthy Boston family who donated the money to move and install the bell.

"I feel my ancestors patting me on the back, saying, 'Good job,' " he said. "And that's not a feeling that I'm used to."

It’s also a new feeling to hear Revere’s bell ring out from the Old South Meeting House. He’s believed to have taken part in the Boston Tea Party. The silversmith used his engravings to foment revolution.

Later in life, after he helped found this country, Revere turned to casting bells. Now this one rings on the hour over Boston, a symbol of peace, democratic order and freedom.

This program aired on January 12, 2012.


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