Is our Church Bell the “Harbor Bell”?
There has been a lot of confusion over the years regarding our church bell and the hymn "Harbor Bell", and we have a lot of new members who may not be familiar with the story at all.
First of all, here is a brief history of the church bell. The church was completed in 1865, but the congregation could not afford a bell. In August 1868, Captain James W. Seldon aboard the revenue cutter, Wyanda, was attempting to enter Port Townsend (PT) after a surveying expedition to Alaska, which was being purchased by Secretary Seward. It was socked in, and they were lost. Point Wilson had not been constructed, and there were no other fixed navaids in PT. Reverend Peter Hyland, who was rector of several parishes, happened to be in residence at St. Paul's. He was calling the congregation to worship with a hand held "school" bell. Captain Seldon heard the bell, knew where the church was on the bluff, and entered port safely. He offered to give Reverend Hyland a bell for the empty belfry on the condition that parishioners would ring it on foggy days. There are other reports as to the identity of the captain and ship, and that the bell was given to the church on a return voyage from the East Coast; however, this version does not allow time for a round trip around the Horn before what we know happened next. In September 1868, the steamer, Eliza Anderson, was also lost in fog and began sounding distress signals. A church member manned the bell, and she made it safely into port. An unknown passenger wrote a poem, "The Church Fog Bell" that was published in The Young Christian Soldier in 1870.
Parishioner Margaret McGee did extensive research on the hymn for our new parish history in 1995. John H. Yates wrote the words based on an unidentified story in an unknown newspaper, and his friend, a famous gospel singer Ira D. Sankey, provided the music in 1891. Mr. Sankey sang it at several venues, and it became a huge hit all over the country, especially in port towns. Perhaps you can now guess where this leads. We have no proof that there is a connection between the poem, "The Church Fog Bell" and the hymn "The Harbor Bell." By the same token, since we do not know Mr. Yates' source materials, it is not impossible that there was one. We do know that the legend that Mr. Sankey was on the vessel that was saved in PT is not true. The dates do not jive; Point Wilson was on line by then, but more importantly, the church was moved in 1883. The city cut a road through the bluff at the east end of town, and the church was in the way. The current location is one block off of the bluff with a row of Victorian houses in between; this is not helpful for getting a good bearing in fog. Perhaps he was on another ship in another town; there were plenty of shipwrecks and near misses in the 1880’s and 90’s. Perhaps that had nothing to do with it. We will never know.
However, this we do know. The hymn was a hit; citizens of PT were familiar with it; St. Paul's had saved one documented ship and possibly more, parishioners rightfully claimed that they had done what was sung, and the rest as they say is history. To this day you will find many locals, many locally published history books, and several parishioners who still say that it was our bell that inspired the hymn. It is possible but not proven. To this day, the bell is rung after services not before. It is no longer a call to worship, but each person leaving gives the bell rope a tug in memory of those who stood duty at PT's first navaid.
There is one last chapter. The rusted, vandalized, out of tune bell was lowered by roofers in 2004. The PT Foundry removed the globs of red paint that were in honor of a PT High School football victory, the corrosion and clapper. The latter is flat on both sides after one hundred and thirty six years of service. The restored iron bell was dipped in nickel to prevent any further deterioration, and a new brass clapper and pressure treated mounting timbers were installed.