The Story of the John Brown Bell

History of Marlborough

In the early days of the Civil War, company I, composed of Marlborough men, was assigned to duty in Maryland near Harper’s Ferry to guard against any Confederate attempt to cross the Potomac River and seize the Washington Capitol. It was here that the U.S. Arsenal was located which John Brown, the anti-slavery crusader, had captured in 1859 in a futile attempt to rally the slaves into insurrection. It was in the firehouse of the Arsenal that Brown was trapped and captured by the U.S. Marines from whence he was brought to a speedy trail and execution for treason. In the northern states he was regarded as a martyr while southerners characterized him as a villain and traitor. The John Brown episode added fire to the differences between northern and southern states, and had helped to bring about the war which was the reason for Company I being at Harper’s Ferry.

Company I was assigned the task of removing from the arsenal anything of salvage value. Several men who had been members of the “Torrent” Fire /engine Company in Marlborough (the “Torrent” being a hand-tub) decided that the bell still hanging in the belfry atop the engine house at Harper’s Ferry was just what their engine house in Marlborough needed. On September 26, 1862, Lt. David Brown led the men of the company in the removal of the bell. Ordered to rejoin the 13th Regiment at Williamsport Lock in Maryland, they took the bell with them on a canal boat. The War Department gave them permission to keep the bell, but they found, to their disappointment, that their lack of funds and restrictions on railroad transportation would prevent its shipment to Marlborough at that time.

In the spring of 1862 the regiment was sent into battle and the Marlborough men left the bell in the care of a Mrs. Snyder who had baked bread for them during the winter. Finally after many engagements and casualties, their three year term of enlistment was over, and Company I returned home. The old bell was forgotten. And then in 1892, A G.A.R. National Encampment was held at Washington, DC and some of the surviving members of Company I, including some of those, who had taken down the bell, decided to go to Williamsport Lock and look up old friends there. Having been refused rooms at the local hotel run by an unreconstructed rebel, they went and found the Mrs. Snyder who had cooked for them thirty years before. She took them in for the night and they found that she had kept their bell for them, part of the time buried in her garden for security.

Lysander Parker and James M. Gleason of the original Bell squad then had the bell shipped to Marlborough. The “Torrent Engine” and the bell-less house had by then disappeared and the City of Marlborough had a public water supply that needed no engines. The G.A.R., John A. Rawlins Post 43 of Marlborough, was then building a three story headquarters for themselves on Main Street and the “John Brown Bell” was placed on the front of this building, overhanging the street, and there it has remained ever since, its high pitched and penetrating tones sounding out on all appropriate occasions.

(The G.A.R. building was torn down and a special tower was built on Union Common to house the Bell).