A Bell with a Remarkable History

Bulletin of the PCHS, November 1956


On September 3, 1855 the East Ward School, later known as School No. 1, was dedicated in Paterson and that day was a gala day in town.  The exercises were held on the Island following a procession of all the school children well decked with gay banners and streamers.  This school was erected on the north side of Van Houten Street where the Central Fire Headquarters now (1956) stands.  It was a brick building of three stories.  The plot on which it stood was 75 x 97 feet and was purchased for $1500.  In the belfry of the school was a bell which had a most interesting history dating from pre-Napoleonic days.

It’s story begins in a little Alpine village with the erection of a small church.  Desiring a bell for their church, the pious Swiss people were willing to make sacrifices for it and the villagers brought in a great quantity of gold and silver jewelry and trinkets to be cast with the bell metal.  When the bell was received from the foundry, it had a most unusual tone and the good people were indeed proud of their little church bell – but not for long.

One day Napoleon visited the Alpine community and, as was his custom, gave order to remove the bell from the church.  This, with other loot, was carried off to France.  When the forces of Napoleon were defeated and the Emperor was banished, his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, fled to America.  In 1815, the bell and many other objects brought from various sources by Napoleon were brought to America.

Shortly after Joseph Bonaparte’s arrival in America, he purchased a large estate near Bordentown, NJ and the bell was placed upon a high post in the door-yard where it was used to call the workmen from the fields to their meals.  Within a few years after Joseph Bonaparte had established a home on his famous “Pointe Breeze” estate, as it was called, the mansion house burned and the bell fell from its position.  It was purchased by a Jersey City manufacturer who had it mounted on his factory where it was used instead of a whistle.

The little Swiss church bell was to witness another fire for the factory burned and this time the bell was so badly damaged that it was sold for junk; but the junk dealer sent it to a foundry to be recast.

Meanwhile, the Paterson and Hudson River Rail Road Company had been organized and had established its depot on Main Street between Depot (DeGrassse) and Grand Street to the center of town.  A ticket office was established on the southeast corner of Main and Congress (Market) Streets, opposite Platt Rogers’ “Congress House.”  In front of the “Congress House” on Congress Street, the Swiss church bell was placed, having been purchased by the railroad company from the Jersey City junk dealer.  Walter Arndt Lucas, the eminent railroad historian and author of “From the Hills to the Hudson” and many other books on railroading, says that “the bell was rung by Rody Claxton for 15 minutes previous to the departure of the cars…..The bell was used until the Paterson railroad was leased by the Erie and the practice of announcing the departure given up.”


Intersection of Congress and Main Streets, Paterson, NJ

The illustration (above) is from an old lithograph made by the Paterson artist Thomas Whitely.  In the foreground is the “Congress House,” the ticket office and a horse-drawn car which has just arrived from New York.  Passengers may be seen alighting and baggage being removed from the roof of the car.  Standing on the Congress Street side is an omnibus which met all cars.

Mr. Lucas says that Ezra Osborn, material mechanic of the Paterson Rail Road Company, presented the bell to the city for the East Ward School.  Here it was used from 1855 until the great fire in 1902 when it was complete destroyed.  From it molten mass, souvenir bells of the fire were cast and one of these was presented to The Passaic County Historical Society many years ago.