Calls are ringing out across the city to spotlight a familiar downtown feature heavy with local history. Supporters are urging the public to scrounge through old photo albums and family documents looking for more documentation of the town's most famous bell.
Knox United Church is one of city's oldest buildings, but older still is the bell that announces services each Sunday morning. It has a separate story that brought it together with Knox United, including the reason it sits outside of the main entrance instead of pealing from a belfry like most other churches.
The answer to that question was not initially realized, according to the research of Knox United Church parishioner Evelyn O'Sullivan. When Reverend C. Melville Wright and his congregation at First Presbyterian Church in Central Fort George put in an order for their own bell, everything seemed fine at first, but an engineering problem soon set in.
Wright became the church pastor there in 1910. It was his first job following his ordination, and it was the church's inauguration at the same time. They started that summer in tents, then, on city lots donated by devout parishioners George Hammond and his wife, a temporary wood-frame building was constructed by volunteer labour one year later. By 1914 a second more impressive church was built alongside it. In anticipation of the new church, a bell was commissioned. It arrived two years ahead of the building's completion.
"The bell was brought via the B.X steamboat on the Fraser River in 1914," said O'Sullivan. "The steamboat docked at South Fort George and from there the bell was hauled by wagon to Central Fort George, in the area of 5th Avenue and Central Street today. It must have been quite an effort because it weighed 1,400 pounds."
What quickly emerged after its installation was a fact that sealed the bell's fate not only at First Presbyterian then, but Knox United today.
"The bell was hung in the bell tower but it was so heavy, when it rang it shook the whole wooden church," O'Sullivan said. "They removed the rope so the bell couldn't be rung anymore. It was a hazard."
It did clang out one more time after that, but not as a call to church. It was a steely cry for help.
"There was a big fire, a hotel was burning down, and a man climbed up there - there was no rope, remember, to make it ring - and he rang that bell to alert people to come help," said O'Sullivan. The building in flames was Johnson's Hotel and the climber was David D. Priestman on Nov. 13, 1914.
The bell was otherwise on its same silent pathway through time until 1922 when the congregation closed First Presbyterian Church's doors forever and amalgamated with Knox Presbyterian Church (established in October 1910).
"The church in Central Fort George was unoccupied for seven years and in 1929 they had to tear it down; it was rotting," said O'Sullivan.
Knox Church evolved over the years, especially in 1925 when the name changed from Presbyterian to United following the national amalgamation of Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist organizations.
Before the name change, in 1922, a new Knox church was constructed at 5th Avenue and Brunswick Street to accommodate the influx from Central Fort George. Then alongside it was built a larger version in 1956. Again they built a belfry intending for the bell to be installed there, but again it failed the strength test.
"The bell sat in the back alley behind the church since presumably around the time they tore down the old Central Fort George church. There it lay for 40 years," said O'Sullivan. "In the '60s an elder of the church, Mr. Ken Irwin, worked for many years to build a new stronger tower for the bell, but eventually had to build the present placement for the Knox Bell. It is suspended near the ground on the lawn in front of the 'new' Knox church. Thus the bell was rescued from the alley and the scrap heap."
A smaller rescue mission was launched in more recent times - within the last year - for the bell's gong. An unknown passerby stole the clapper, but after a public appeal "it reappeared as mysteriously as it was taken," said Sullivan and the bell rang again each Sunday, and it continues to.
It is typically the job of "Cowboy" Bob Chorney to be the bell ringer each week.
Now the parishioners and local history buffs want to rescue the bell's very story. Knox United Church is already a featured spot on the city's official History Walk - a guided route past the downtown's best historical features - but O'Sullivan is part of a group wishing the bell to have its own place on the list.
The City of Prince George has been co-operative with adding the Knox Bell to the walking tour, which would include a commemorative placard set permanently at the sidewalk near the bell, with photos and essay about the steel icon of Prince George culture. O'Sullivan is calling on the public to scour family collections of old photographs and documents of any kind to find more on the bell's early years in the city. Report any finds to O'Sullivan's email (sull...@shaw.ca) or call Knox United Church with the message.