Our Iowa Heritage: The Bells of Iowa City.

Bells have been used for centuries as a tool of communication. And the history of America simply cannot be told without mentioning the great importance of bells.

Would you believe, for example, that the National Bell Festival website reports that since our nation’s birth, 300 different bell foundries have been known to have operated on American soil? 300 foundries casting big bells and small bells. Loud bells and not so loud bells. Bells for churches – bells for schoolhouses – bells for town halls – bells for clock towers. Bells for steamboats. Bells for trains. Bells for fire-engines. And, especially for us Iowans, bells, even for the American farm.

1841 – Young Iowa City – In Need of Some Bells!

Over its 180-year history, Iowa City has had its share of bells. And here, I simply want to call attention to eight special bells that have made the biggest impressions. But before I do, it might be good to tell you how empty Iowa City felt in those early days when our fair city was bell-less! In an 1841 letter written to the American Home Missionary Society, newcomer Rev. W. W. Woods wrote this disparaging account of our bell-less community…

In other words, in 1841, our bell-less Iowa City needed some ring-ding-dinging to bring our sleepy little community to life!

And the bells came…starting on June 20, 1841…


Bell #1 – Steamboats Are a-Comin’ (1841-1845).

Undoubtedly, the very first bells that captured the attention of most Iowa Citians, were the clear-sounding captains’ bells mounted on the steamboats that made their way up the Iowa River to the Iowa City Landing. The Ripple, under the leadership of Captain Dan Jones, was the first (June 20, 1841), with several more steaming into town over the next ten years. Pictured above in Mildred Pelzer’s classic mural, is The Agatha, which pulled into Iowa City, with its captain’s bell a-ringing, on March 12, 1844. Read more about Iowa City’s short steamboat era here.


Bell #2 – Act 1 – The Little Bell That Could (1845 – 1855).

Forged in New York City in 1844, this little bronze bell was most likely the first one to ring out regularly on the streets of Iowa City. It came here in 1845 via some disgruntled Presbyterians who started a second “First Presbyterian Church,” after splitting from the larger denomination in the early 1840’s. The 125-pound bell is dated (1844) and its first home was the First Constitutional Presbyterian Church of Iowa City (Old Stone Church) located on the south side of Burlington Street, a half-block west of Clinton Street (see map below).

Hint #1: Bell #2 returns to our Iowa City Bell story…keep reading!


Bell #3 – Iowa City’s Hum-Dinger of a Bell Story (1848).

In the late summer of 1848, all hell broke loose in Iowa City as the recently-dismissed Rev. Michael Hummer climbed into the belfry of First Presbyterian Church (site of Old Brick today), trying to “recover” the Troy Foundry bell (worth $600) he believed to be his. While his efforts failed, it left one great story for bell-lovers, Iowa City historians and church-goers alike.

A partial list of people who pledged money for a replacement bell for the North Presbyterian Church (Old Brick) in 1855.

Click here to read the whole Hummer’s Bell story.


Bell #2 – Act 2 – The Little SUI Bell That Just Keeps Ringing (1855 – 1897).

Earlier, we told you about Bell #2, probably the first stationary bell to ring out over the streets of Iowa City (1845). For years, the Constitutional Presbyterians, located on Burlington Street, had received many complaints about their little bell. Many in the congregation thought it “ridiculously small” (22 inches – 125 pounds) for a church bell, while others complained that the little guy had a “sharp pre-emptory . . . even shrill, tone.”

Mechanics Academy – across the street from City Park.

After a decade of complaints, the contentious Presbyterian group (which dissolved in 1865) decided to sell its little bell to the State University of Iowa, which was now preparing to hold its first classes (March 1855) in Mechanics Academy, renting this struggling private school located just two blocks from Capitol Square (see map below).

1854 map shows Mechanics Academy just east of City Park.

University trustee minutes for April 4, 1855, show that $76.45 was paid to the Presbyterians, while Prather & Ealy, an early local contractor, received $9 to move the bell about six blocks from the Presbyterian belfry to the empty belfry of Mechanics Academy.

The little bell of Mechanics Academy. Click on the picture to enlarge the Press-Citizen article from May 31, 2003.

Click here to read more about Mechanics Academy – The Cradle of the University.

Iowa City historian, Bob Hibbs, tells this interesting anecdote about our little bell at Mechanics Academy:

The 125-pound bell heralded students to class and earned their disdain as it had their Presbyterian predecessors. According to a tale from a 1940 WPA writers’ county history, students pulled “a naughty prank” of turning the bell upside down, filling it with water and allowing it to freeze on a winter’s night. Apparently, “Johnson’s rattle,” a mock deference to the first SUI instructor, didn’t ring the next morning, and no classes were held.

The little bell, though not thought very highly of by either the disgruntled Presbyterians or the first students at SUI, did go on to serve our city until Mechanics Academy was razed in 1897.

Hint #2: We’re still not done telling the story of Bell #2 – more coming a bit later…


Bell #4 – The Mis-Shipped Bell of St. Mary’s (1855-1885).

The first Mass in Iowa City was celebrated by a frontier missionary, the Rev. Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli on December 20, 1840. It was attended by 28 people in a building that doubled as a private home and a hotel owned by Ferdinand Haberstroh.

The St. Mary’s site is one of several set aside by the original town plat for churches, as is the United Methodist Church site in the same block.

The previous day, Mazzuchelli had arrived from Burlington, securing two lots on which St. Mary’s church and rectory still stand today (220 E. Jefferson). St Mary’s parish (a small wooden structure) was established here by Mazzuchelli in 1841, named St. Mary of the Assumption, and was largely completed by 1842.

Above is a rare look (circa 1865) at the “second” St. Mary’s Catholic Church (left) which sported the storied “mis-shipped” bell in the churchyard beside it. The current 1869 church (right) was built around the existing one, which then was demolished from the inside and carried out piece by piece. The 140-foot steeple on the new facility was added in 1874 where the bell served until 1885.

By 1844, the parish had grown to about 70 families, and as the story goes, the church in 1855, now worshipping in a larger facility (see picture above), ordered a bell for their growing parish. When it arrived, the beautiful, gloriously-toned bell was consecrated and mounted in a 24-foot tower built next to the church (see picture above). Several months later, a surprise came when the foundry contacted St. Mary’s informing them of a shipping error, and that the bell hanging in their tower really belonged to St. Mary’s in Sauk City, Wisconsin! Rather than part with their beautiful bell, the Iowa City congregation raised enough money to buy another bell for the good folks in Wisconsin. The St. Mary’s bell went on to become an important part of Iowa City history, being used continuously until being replaced in 1885 (in the current facility) by a 17-bell carillon installed atop St. Mary’s by Iowa City jeweler Joseph Barborka, who also hand-crafted the parts and installed the steeple clock.


Bell #5 – The Mississippi & Missouri Railroad Engine Bell & The New Years Day Bells of Iowa City (1855-1856).

Railroad Arrives – 1856 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

Of all of our Iowa City bell stories, the bell that rang out from atop the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad’s locomotive on December 31, 1855 might be the most dramatic.

Click here to read the full account of the arrival of the railroad in Iowa City.

Here’s how Iowa City historian, Irving Weber tells the story…


Bell #6 – The First Old Capitol Bell (1862-1864).

As we mentioned earlier, the first University bell was located in Mechanics Academy (1855). When the State House was given over to SUI in 1857, the University began remodeling Old Capitol, using it for classrooms and office space. By 1861, South Hall had been built adjacent to Old Capitol, being used as both a dorm for students and for classroom space. In 1862, a new bell was purchased ($360) and hung, for the first time, in the Bell Tower of Old Capitol. But, as it is with some bells (i.e. the 1776 Liberty Bell in Philadelphia), the first bell in Old Capitol developed a serious crack and needed to be replaced.


Bell #7 – The Second Old Capitol Bell (1864-2001).

Above is the bell that hung in the Old Capitol Bell Tower from 1864 to 2001. This bell tolled for three days and nights after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, chimed for several days to mark the end of World War II, rung in celebration of America’s Bicentennial on July 4, 1976, and solemnly marked the loss of so many lives immediately following 9/11 in 2001.

In order to replace the cracked bell, SUI ordered a brand new bell from Meneely’s Foundry of West Troy, New York. This one weighed 1,100 pounds, was 38 inches in diameter, cost $504.90, and hung in the tower for 137 years…until…

The 2001 Old Capitol Fire.

In the early 2000’s, The University of Iowa began yet another round of renovations (the previous ones were in the 1920’s and 1970’s) to upgrade Old Capitol. Part of the repairs called for asbestos to be removed from the dome/cupola area.

On November 20, 2001, contractors using open flame torches and heat guns on the cupola supporting the building’s golden dome accidentally set it on fire. The fire was limited to the cupola of the building, thanks to a concrete slab firewall that had been installed during the 1920’s rehabilitation. The 1864 bell at the top of Old Capitol was irreparably damaged, the dome was destroyed, and the tens of thousands of gallons of water used to douse the blaze caused major damage inside. The University of Iowa later settled a lawsuit with the contractors for $1.9 million. Below, a technologist examines the extensive damage to the 1864 bell after the 2001 fire.

In February 2003, a new, 12,000 pound wooden dome, covered with 23 and 3⁄4 carat gold leaf, was placed on top of Old Capitol. On May 6, 2006, the building was reopened to the public, and today, Old Capitol is “new” once more! Which now brings us to…


Bell #8 – The Third Old Capitol Bell (2002-present).

On December 30, 2002, a construction crane lifted the replacement bell up to the Old Capitol Bell Tower, and began ringing for fall classes, once again, in August 2003. One interesting note: The bells of Old Capitol were rung by hand until 1948, when an automatic ringing system was added.

The current bell in Old Capitol cost $18,305, weighs 1,500 pounds and is 42 inches in diameter, slightly larger and heavier than the 1864 bell that was damaged in the fire of 2001. Like its predecessor, this bronze bell was forged at the Meneely Foundry in West Troy, New York sometime between 1860 and 1890.


Bell #2 – Act 3 – The Little SUI Bell Does a Victory Lap (1897 – present).

Just as we promised, here’s Bell #2 again…with the rest of the story…

Del Gilmore, a bell hobbyist, poses with the 1844 Mechanics Academy bell in the 
basement of the University of Iowa sports museum at Mormon Trek and Melrose Avenue. Kuddos to Del for uncovering the continuing story of The LIttle SUI Bell That Just Keeps Ringing. BTW: it was Del who helped Old Capitol locate a similar replacement bell for Old Capitol after the 2001 fire.

When we last saw the little 1844 bell (Bell #2) that nobody seemed to like, it was sitting atop Mechanics Academy. But, in 1897, the Cradle of the University was razed, making way for the first wing of East Hall – University Hospital (see below).

Many thought our little 1844 bell was lost at that time, but after looking at Del Gilmore‘s research (2003) and doing a bit more on my own, I’m ready to reveal the full story of what happened to The Little SUI Bell That Just Keeps Ringing

November 1933 – Our Little Bell Arises Once More!

In an article appearing Friday, November 3, 1933 (see below) in the Ames Daily Tribune-Times, our little 1844 bell has just resurfaced in time to become the new traveling trophy for the winner of the Iowa/Iowa State football game.

According to the report of Arthur A. Smith, SUI’s acting superintendent of grounds and buildings in 1933 (also an engineering student at Iowa in 1913), our little bell didn’t just disappear after Mechanics Academy was torn down (1897), but was used during the early years (1897-1913) of Iowa Field as The Victory Bell at Iowa football games!

(P-0120) Circa 1915: Here’s a very rare postcard picturing the Iowa football team playing in Iowa Field.

Flashback to November 15, 1913 – Iowa Field – Iowa City.

But then it happened! On November 15, 1913, our arch-rival Cyclones came to town and pulled a fast one after suffering a devastating 45-7 loss to the Hawkeyes…

According to the 1933 Ames Tribune article, ISU players and fans, frustrated with their 45-7 loss to the Hawkeyes in Iowa Field (1913), absconded with The Victory Bell, carrying it out of the stadium as the large Iowa crowd was celebrating on the field. Apparently, the ISU gang was discrete enough (and strong enough) to tote the 125-pound bell up the hill (past Old Capitol), ducking quickly into the SUI Student Union (Unity Hall), where they hauled their booty up the stairs, hiding it away in the building’s unused belfry!

1913 – Unity Hall Belfry – A Great Hiding Place.

Unity Hall, facing Old Capitol on N. Clinton Street, served as the Iowa Student Union from 1911-1913.

According to the article, The Victory Bell was finally re-discovered in the fall of 1933, when Unity Hall was razed, and now (November 1933), the bell was being brought back into use as the new traveling trophy for the winner of the 1933 Iowa/ISU football game. BTW – Iowa won that game in Iowa City, 27-7, keeping our little bell at home.


The Victory Bell – 1934 to Today…

Conceived and created as a traveling trophy by the Greater Des Moines Athletic Club, the Cy-Hawk trophy was first presented to the 1977 winner by Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray when the Iowa/ISU series was finally renewed. Obviously, after 43 years, The Victory Bell had been long forgotten.

Interestingly, because of rising tensions between the two schools, the Hawkeyes played only one more game (before taking a 43-year hiatus) against the Cyclones in Ames in 1934. The Hawks lost that game 31-6, but apparently The Victory Bell didn’t change hands, because according to bell hobbyist, Del Gilmore, our little bell, though hidden away for about a decade, reappeared at Iowa sporting events in the mid 1940’s, following WWII. A December 1945 edition of the SUI News Bulletin carried a story headlined: “Victory Bell Becomes New University of Iowa Tradition.”

I remember my dad, who attended nearly every Iowa home game over the last 50 years of his life, telling me how popular cowbells were in the early days of Iowa Stadium. In my office, I have the cowbell he used back in the day, and I would, on occasion, take it with me to the Iowa Field House during the hey-day of Coach Ralph Miller and his high-flying Iowa basketball team (1969-1970). Apparently, by the early 1950’s, as Herky the Hawk became the focal point at Iowa football games, The Victory Bell went into hiding once more, staying quiet there in the bowels of Iowa Stadium (re-named Kinnick Stadium in 1972) until the dawn of the 21st century.

With the opening of the UI sports museum (2003), our little bell was, once again, re-discovered and put on display there, until the good folks at the Old Capitol Museum decided to bring our little friend back to the east side of the Iowa River, finding a new secure home in Old Stone Capitol, much closer now to those earlier locations it once proudly served.

Here’s to Bell #2 – Our LIttle SUI Bell That Just Keeps Ringing and all seven of the other beautiful bells, big and small, that have impacted our fair city over the last 180 years.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Thanks to The University of Iowa Pentacrest Museums for this montage of pics from the Old Capitol Museum.

Bell Foundaries, National Bell Festival

Walter Butler: Capitol Builder, William J. Peterson, The Palimpsest, Volume 36-Number 12-Article 2, December 1955, p. 490

Bell of the Cheng-Tze Steamboat, Karen A. Robinson, Pixels.com

1855 Subscription ledger for a bell for the North Presbyterian Church in Iowa City, Iowa City Public Library

St. Mary’s Catholic Church – Iowa City, Wikipedia

Stories of St. Mary’s, Bob Hibbs, IAGenWeb – Johnson County, March 29, 2003

Facing East and Facing West – Iowa’s Old Capitol Museum, Linzie Kull McCray & Thomas Langdon (2007) University of Iowa Press, pp. 40-41

Mechanics Academy Victory Bell, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb Project, July 12, 2003

The Bells of Old Capitol, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb Project, July 7, 2003

Hawk-Cyclone Winner To Get Victory Bell, Ames Daily Tribune, November 3, 1933

Tracing the 100-year legend of the stolen, lost, and rediscovered CyHawk “victory bell”, Travis Hines, Ames Tribune, September 12, 2019

Iowa-Iowa State Football Rivalry, Wkipedia

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