Monument to a city’s grief: 150 years ago this Sacramento fire bell tolled on Lincoln’s assassination

The manufacture place and date of the city’s historic fire bell is noted in relief on its side: Boston 1856. The bell was shipped around the southern tip of South America en route to Sacramento.
The manufacture place and date of the city’s historic fire bell is noted in relief on its side: Boston 1856. The bell was shipped around the southern tip of South America en route to Sacramento. blindelof@sacbee.com

Outside a fire station near the Sacramento neighborhood of River Park sits a bell housed in an small, elegant cupola.

Hundreds of motorists on H Street near Carlson Drive travel by each day, not knowing the bell’s importance in the history of Sacramento. This week marks a special anniversary in the life of the old bell, which once sat atop one of Sacramento’s pioneer fire stations.

It was 150 years ago that the bell, like other bells around the city, tolled to mark the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre and died the next day.

The Daily Bee marked the sad occasion with a story that began: “The flags droop at half-mast and the bells give forth solemn tones.”

The history of the old firehouse bell is told in a short story on the wall at the Sacramento Fire Department station just off H Street near California State University, Sacramento.

It says that the volunteer Young America Company No. 6, organized June 21, 1855, operated out of a firehouse on the east side of 10th Street between I and J streets. In those days, volunteers came running to the station when the fire bell was rung.

However, Young America had no bell and was always being beaten to fires by the rival Eureka Engine Company No. 4. To best its rival by mustering its firefighters more quickly, Young America purchased a bell made in New York and shipped around Cape Horn to Sacramento in 1857.

Upon installation, the bell sounded first by ringing in the new year in 1858. It also is said to have been rung on April 13, 1860, when the first Pony Express rider arrived in Sacramento.

When Lincoln was elected, the bell pealed in jubilation. Five years later, it rang solemnly to note his killing.

CSUS professor Brendan Lindsay said California played some indirect, yet significant roles in the Civil War and the politics associated with it. California’s electoral votes went to Lincoln in 1860 and 1864, helping to elect him.

California gold also had a role in the war, Lindsay said. By 1861, the Gold Rush was well over. However, the state was still producing nuggets.

“Ultimately, California gold represented a reliable source of monetary stability at a time when the U.S. had begun to print paper money – ‘greenbacks’ – which led to a rise in inflation, but a rise offset by the hard currency backing of California gold,” Lindsay said.

The state, according to Lindsay, sent about 17,000 men to fight in the war, most of them for the Union and all in regiments raised by other states. California was considered too far from the action, and thus too expensive for the federal government to fund travel pay, prompting men to usually pay their own way east.

Some Californians volunteered and served in uniform in the West, guarding against the threat of invasion. Meanwhile, there was considerable Confederate sympathy in pockets around the state.

“However, the most important population and political centers of the time, especially San Francisco and Sacramento, were dominated by Northern-born men,” Lindsay said.

James Scott, Sacramento Public Library information services librarian, said Sacramento was a Union town. However, there were Southerners drawn to the city by the Gold Rush.

“You need only take a look through the 1851 city directory to see how many Southerners there were,” Scott said. “There were standoffs between unionists and rebels at various saloons.”

A Confederate-leaning enclave was rumored to have existed near Elk Grove. Union flags would go missing from different spots around Sacramento, Scott said.

The Young America fire station was eventually torn down, but the bell and its fine dome housing were saved. For a while, the state of California stored the bell, but thanks to the efforts of fire Chief Tom Deise, it was returned to the city in 1961.

Pioneer Mutual Hook & Ladder Society, a group whose members strive to hold onto Sacramento firefighting history, heard that the bell tower was in bad shape. An effort was mounted several years ago to restore the artifacts.

“It cost us about $12,000, but the fellows we hired did a good job,” said Tim McCormack, a member of Pioneer Mutual Hook & Ladder. “Now we keep a close eye on it to make sure it does not fall into disrepair anymore.”

The clapper was not attached, perhaps to spare neighbors the gong of midnight bell-ringing by jokesters.

Call The Bee’s Bill Lindelof, (916) 321-1079. Bee Researcher Pete Basofin contributed to this story.