The Department of Parks and Recreation has announced plans to disassemble the creaky old Mount Morris Fire Watchtower in Harlem, although it says it will store the pieces until there is money to fully restore it. Thus will disappear the last of the unusual network of fire bell towers in New York City, which began in 1812 on top of City Hall and ended around 1880, the bell system replaced by street boxes and telegraphs, reports The New York Times.
The cupola of City Hall had a bell to be rung in case of alarm. The system was not perfect: the New York Daily Tribune reported in 1851 “an unusually beautiful display of the North lights after 2 o’clock yesterday morning,” with “flamelike flashes causing the bell ringer at the City Hall to give the alarm for a short time.” A wider network was necessary and, even before the Great Fire of 1835, a watchtower building program was underway. One was the watchtower built in 1832 at Sixth Avenue and 10th Street, which was built with a market alongside — the Jefferson Market. The early towers were built of wood, which could prove inconvenient; in 1851 the tower burned and the 9,000-pound bell was ruined in the collapse. The bell ringer, who was paid $500 per year, had time to strike the bell only twice before just escaping with his life.
The New York Daily Tribune reported that the city would entertain bids for a tower to replace the burned structure, one in wood, one in iron, a newly developing technology. Wood won out, but some iron ones, in some cases the work of the iron pioneer James Bogardus, were already underway, like the one at Spring Street near Macdougal, at a cost of $64,000. The watchtowers were picturesque, but not necessarily popular. In 1854 The New-York Daily Times observed that the new tower “must be peculiarly refreshing to residents in that vicinity.”
For this and other reasons the job of bell ringer was hard to fill; in 1850 the bell ringer who had worked at the Jefferson Market tower for three years said he had had at least 30 different partners, some who stayed as little as a week. Most sources say they worked eight-hour shifts, sheltered at the top of the tower in a glazed cupola.
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