MOHAI to put fire bell in its place

At the beginning of the tale, a gluepot. At the end, a 5,000-pound fire bell.

Sometimes, objects tell the story, said Feliks Banel, spokesman for the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle. And the theme of this story? Cause and effect.

Consider first, June 6, 1889. The gluepot — cooking in the basement of a carpenter's shop at what is now First Avenue and Madison Street — boiled over onto shavings, paint and turpentine, igniting a ferocious fire that devoured downtown Seattle.

The bronze fire bell, which hung in a belfry outside Seattle's first fire station, was installed soon after the devastating burn, which spurred the creation of the city's first professional fire department.

After languishing in a forgotten corner outside MOHAI for years, the bell will be moved today to a more honorable spot outside the Montlake museum's entrance.

Fire-bell party

The Museum of History and Industry, 2700 24th Ave. E., will hold a public rededication for the historic Seattle fire bell at 2 p.m. tomorrow. The museum can be reached at 206-324-1126 or
Tomorrow, the anniversary of the Great Seattle Fire, the museum will throw a party for the bell. The mayor, fire chief and firefighters are scheduled to attend, accompanied by a ladder truck and fireboat spewing fountains off the Union Bay shore, just yards from the museum's front door.

Everyone is invited to celebrate the freshly cleaned bell, and all badge-carrying volunteer and professional firefighters will get free museum admission through Sunday. The museum houses a permanent Seattle fire exhibit, with photos, fire hats, hoses and a mural depicting the big burn.

The bell symbolizes Seattle's response to the 1889 fire and its eventual rise from a backwater frontier town to a modern brick-and-stone city, Banel said.

"The 1889 fire was a big deal; it essentially wiped the slate clean and allowed the city to rebuild itself." Part of that rebuild was the creation of a 32-member professional fire department.

In 1890, the new fire bell was sent west from the Gardiner Campbell & Sons Bell Foundry in Milwaukee.

It hung for almost 30 years in a wooden belfry at the Seventh Avenue station before telephone technology retired it to a historical-society collection in 1919. It was moved to Sand Point and then to the new MOHAI building in 1952.

It sat on a concrete pad outside the museum's northwest corner for years. It used to be more visible, but trees and foliage grew up around it, eventually cloaking it entirely, Banel said. It has suffered some indignities: dripping sap, a green, sludgy surface buildup. It will now sit near a battleship deck gun known as "the cannon."

Other historic pieces — what Banel calls "the garden of iconic objects" — still lurk in the museum's landscape. A late-1800s stone Indian head peers down from the building. An 1885 millstone sits out back. And an 800-year-old tree ring is stashed under the museum's original entrance, defunct since Highway 520 took over its front yard.

The museum will move downtown in a few years, Banel said, and who knows, maybe there's a belfry in its future.

But, he added, the bell's ring can be heard about 10 miles away. "We'll have to soften it somehow."

Paysha Stockton can be reached at 206-464-2752 or