South Manchester's Audible Fire Alarm
by Doug Welch,
Town of Manchester Fire Department Historian and Retired Firefighter

Our older citizens remember the fire alarm bell sounding from the steeple of Center Congregational Church, occasionally to the dismay of the parishioners attending services. The striking mechanism was eventually disconnected from the fire department's alarm system in the 1960's when the Central Fire Station was built at the center of town, but its story goes back over 100 years.

The original fire alarm whistle was a steam whistle on the stack of the Cheney Brothers' "old mill" boiler room on the south side of Hartford Road. The mill was in a hollow and thus the sound did not travel as far as needed. In 1903, there was concern expressed by the fire fighters living on the east side of Main Street that they were not able to hear the whistle from inside the homes and stores. They said they were often unable to hear, or properly count, the blasts on the mill whistle and asked that an audible device of some sort be placed on the east side of town. Members of Company No. 2 also stated that when the wind was coming from the north it was impossible to hear the Cheney whistle in the area of the Center.

A large gong was installed at the corner of Main and Oak Streets, but it was difficult to hear and was at the mercy of the elements. Company No. 2 formed a committee in March 1904 to meet with the trustees of the Center Congregational Church to try to make arrangements to place some sort of gong in the steeple of the church tower. They figured that because the church was on the top of Center Hill, it would allow the alarm to be heard throughout the entire east side of town. In August of that year following negotiations with the church elders, the Fire District approved $400 for the installation of a 50-pound Gamewell striking mechanism on the existing steeple bell of Center Congregational Church.

The connection with the alarm system was completed in November, 1904. The church bell was set to strike out the number of an activated alarm box automatically when the box was pulled, while the West Side still had to wait for the watchman at Cheney Brothers' to read the box number on an annunciator and then sound the whistle by hand.

It was hoped that the new alarm would be heard by all the firemen living on the East Side. The result, however, was disappointing. It was reported that unless the wind was with the sound, it could not be heard from a distance. The problem was blamed on the bell itself, which was the same one used by the church. A new whistle was installed on the stack of the new boiler room on Forest Street when it was built in 1912, which it was hoped would solve the problem. This whistle was equipped with an automatic sounding mechanism.

As late as 1960, there were still complaints from fire fighters about the inability to hear the fire alarms in some parts of South Manchester. Even though the department at this time was a town operated paid department, the audible alarms were still used to summon off-duty and volunteer aid when needed.

Town Fire Chief W. Clifford Mason pointed out in 1961 that the town had no fire sounding device of its own. A bid from a Dover, New Hampshire firm of $3,374 was the low bid for a compressed air horn fire alarm which was installed on the roof of the Spruce Street fire station in January, 1962. At that time, the Center Church bell was disconnected from the alarm system. In the 1970s, the use of the Cheney whistle was no longer available and the air horn was moved from Spruce Street to the roof of fire headquarters on Center Street where it was more effective. It continued to be used into the 1980's.

January, 2011