The Bells

San Antonio Fire Museum

The Bells
by Edgar Allen Poe

Hear the loud alarm bells –
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now,
their turbulancy tells!
In the startled air of night
How they scream aloud their
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Shriek. Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the
Mercy of the fire.
In a mad expostulation with the
Deaf and frantic fire.

In the old days, there were bells at the missions, in the churches and in No. 1 and No. 2 Engine Houses.  The first person to discover a fire ran to the nearest bell to sound the alarm, or if too distant from a bell, fired their pistol or rifle to warn of the danger.  This usually resulted in a flurry of pistol shots as neighbors in the threatened area joined in giving the alarm, and the average citizens first reaction to the shooting was to settle himself more comfortably in his easy chair with the comment – “Somebody’s getting shot” since shootings were common in those early days.

And then – THE BELLS – causing every able bodied citizen to leap to his feet.  This was serious!  It wasn’t just another shooting, with a couple of hotheads settling some private business.  This was a fire – and that was the business of everybody in San Antonio in the Ante-Bellum and Reconstruction Days of the 1850’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s. 

On the first alarm being sounded, the nearest bell took up the tale, with others joining in: - sweet-toned St Mary’s; raucous voiced St Joseph’s; the querulous complaining note from the steeple of the Ursulines, away past the River; the slow and ponderous beat of San Fernando on the Main Plaza; the strident call from the spire of the “Rooster” Church; throaty St. Mark’s, the brassey clamor of the fire bells at No. 1 and No. 2 - while far-off Newcombville
 The clamor of the dancing bell in the steeple of Mount Zion Baptist Church sounded the tocsin, sweet and faint, like an echo mellowed and softened by distance; doctrinal disputes forgotten in the face of danger.

When the city was divided in four wards, and later eight – the bells At No. 1 and No. 2 Engine Houses would be rung, giving the number of the ward in which the fire was located by taps.  One resounding tap for ward 1, and so on, which eliminated some of the confusion. 

The use of bells continued in vogue until the installation of the electric fire alarm system.  Thus it was that pistol shots and the bells contributed significantly to alarming the population during this critical period.  Modern science took a lot of the glamour out of fire fighting and fires, when it helped eliminate the bells, and the horses, but added immeasurably to the safety and protection of the lives and property of San Antonio.

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