40 for 40: Jefferson County
Port Townsend Fire Bell Tower  

By Cate Comerford previous story | next story | all stories

Port Townsend's Fire Bell Tower is a 75-foot wooden structure built in 1890 to hold a 1,500 pound brass bell and the city's then-new $900 fire engine. The ringing bell rallied the community to fight fires, and provide a coded signal as to the location and severity of the blaze using a system of alarm boxes. The bell tower was also used for fog soundings for the ferry dock below until the early 1960s.

Photo by Jose M. Alonso  

Since time of construction, the wooden tower has weathered countless storms. Every decade or so, the community has come together for yet another round of fundraising for its restoration. For example, the tower was deemed unstable in 1942 but yet stayed active until 1948. Demolition was considered in 1950 but the Jefferson County Historical Society (JCHS) stepped in to raise funds to complete emergency repairs. 
By 1957, the historical society had amassed sufficient donations to restore the tower. At that time, an anchor given to the city by the U.S. Navy was embedded in the concrete base. In one corner of the base was placed a nickel and copper time capsule donated by Joseph With, and containing old documents, photos, and several items from the era.
The tower was once more in danger of collapse in 1971 and funds were raised to restore the structure. The tower was threatened again by collapse in 1991, and the bell had also been mysteriously painted purple with white polka dots. Enough repairs were implemented to keep the tower standing, however.  
In 2001, the Valerie Sivinski Washington Preserves Fund granted $1,000 to the JCHS to support their long-time on-going efforts to preserve the bell tower. This led to the 2003 restoration by the JCHS and City of Port Townsend.
In March 2004, the Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation named Port Townsend's Fire Bell Tower as the recipient of the 2004 State Historic Preservation Officer's Award for Resource Stewardship.
The latest bell tower work began in August 2011 with a Structural Engineer’s Report stating “The tower is a liability for collapse with virtually no reliable strength remaining at the mid-height of the structure.” The primary damage was in the vicinity of the bracing joints to the legs, with the theory being that water shedding down the wood cross-braces ended up sitting right at the joint with the vertical legs.
The total replacement of the 37’ legs and braces was done with glue laminated timbers of Port Orford cedar, a very dense structural cedar that should significantly reduce the maintenance cycle and provide a 75-year-plus life cycle. The project was completed in June of 2014.
Just as the Fire Bell at one time rallied a community to action, the calls of the JCHS and the Washington Trust have saved the bell tower time and again.

This story is part of a series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. This story highlights one of our most popular programs, the Valerie Sivinski Washington Preserves Grant Program, and shows just how much grassroots organizations can accomplish with a small amount of financial assistance. If you would like to support this grant program and spur more projects with positive outcomes, please consider making a special gift to the Washington Trust Valerie Sivinski Washington Preserves Fund. Each dollar contributed to this fund goes directly to funding projects around the state. You can also make a restricted contribution to the Valerie Sivinski Endowment to promote the long term stability of this grant program. Continuous stewardship is needed to protect that irreplaceable legacy for future generations – we appreciate and look forward to your ongoing participation and support.

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