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Saving the Bell

Blog Post by Randi Richardson

Bill Griffy, the watchman at the engine house on the northeast corner of the square, sat outside as he often did on hot summer nights catching what little breeze he could.  It was Wednesday, June 14, 1899, a few minutes after 1 AM.  Other than an attack by a hungry mosquito now and again, nothing much was happening.  Then suddenly there was an explosion.

Quickly Bill rushed to the corner and looked south on Walnut Street.  He saw flames darting out the window of the Kerr Meat Market, reaching across the alley toward the Presbyterian Church.  Moments later the bell in the fire tower was rung to alert sleeping citizens that their help was needed.  Fire laddies wiped the sleep from their eyes as they rushed to the scene.

Flames from the Kerr Meat Market, on the right-hand side of the alley above pictured, ignited a fire in the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church, on the opposite side of the alley, totally destroying the building with the exception of the church bell.  A corner of the engine house, partially obscured by a tree, is visible on the lower left-hand side of the above photo.

By the time of their arrival, the market was a mass of fire.  Flames leaped high in the air and appeared to defy the firemen who turned three heavy streams of water on the building.  Then the breeze that had been so welcomed just a short time earlier picked up fanning the flames across the alley and igniting a cornice of the church.  Luckily that fire was quickly extinguished enabling all efforts to once again focus on saving the meat market.

In a fatal moment, when no one was looking, a light burst forth in the church tower 50 feet above.  Before the crowd could give the alarm that the church was burning, flames shot up the interior of the cupola in a flash over caused by intense heat.  A glance was all that was needed by the firemen to know they had a stubborn fight on hands owing to the location of the fire—it being difficult to reach.

Samuel Gilmore, the fire chief, quickly sent one line of hose into the gallery directly under the tower.  With fire falling all around them, the fire laddies bravely stood their ground before being forced to retreat as the tower, weakened by the flames, threated to topple over them.  At 2:20 AM, just one hour after the fire was discovered, the big steeple fell with a crash in the alley carrying with it the bell that for the past 35 years had summoned the congregation to worship.  Knowing that the church was doomed, Gilmore directed his men to try and save the hotel located next to the church.

At 3:30 AM the flames were finally under control.  The hotel had been saved, but there was little else.  Nothing much remained of the church except the church bell.  Inside of the church everything was destroyed either by water, smoke or fire.  All the furnishings were in ruin including a recently purchased $300 piano, the organ and all the music books.

Hours after the destructive fire, church trustees put their heads together in consideration of a new church building.  A number of prominent church members favored selling the site on Walnut Street and seeking a location elsewhere in the city.  And it wasn’t long before a decision was made to begin construction of a new Presbyterian Church several blocks away at 221 E. Sixth St.

Several years later, Dr. S. K. Rhorer, a prominent member of the Bloomington community, went to Hobart, Oklahoma, to visit his sons, Ralph and Harry.  While there, he was approached by members of the local Presbyterian Church who expressed their desire for a bell.  Rhorer mentioned that the bell from the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church might be available and stated that he would present the matter to the church board for consideration.  In July 1903, the board decided in the affirmative, and the congregation unanimously agreed to present the bell to their co-laborers in Oklahoma.  Soon afterward, the only item saved from the destructive blaze that claimed the Walnut Street Church rang out with new life in a new home in the West.

Sources:

  • Bloomington (IN) Progress, June 20, 1899, p. 1.
  • Bloomington (IN) Courier, July 3, 1903, p. 1.
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