A Reverberating Question

A Down East fishing community weighs — yet again — 
whether to trust the Canadians with a beloved artifact.

The original bell from steamship Queen Victoria (left) hangs beside a replica made in 2006 (right). Photo by Ben Walter

When Gouldsboro residents convene for their annual town meeting in a few weeks, they will debate many things financial, from a $235 charitable contribution all the way to a multi-million-dollar school budget. But the question that promises to arouse their passions calls for a different sort of generosity: Should the town loan its prized historic bell to a Canadian museum for an exhibit marking Canada’s 150th anniversary?

“We have a selectman who comes from out of state who doesn’t give a hoot about our history, and he doesn’t see why the bell can’t be loaned for nine months,” says Gouldsboro historian Bea Buckley, whose brother used to ring the bell to start the day at the Prospect Harbor School. “I don’t want them to have it for as much as nine hours.”

“I sometimes think people are accusing me of having a logic attack,” says Roger Bowen, the selectman in question, “and I plead guilty.”

The brass bell’s 158-year history is, as you’ve no doubt guessed, complicated. Long before its 70-plus-year tenure in the school belfry, the bell hung below the mainsail of the Canadian steamship SS Queen Victoria, the vessel that in 1864 carried delegates to the Charlottetown Conference on Prince Edward Island. There, during a champagne-fueled party on board the ship, the Fathers of the Confederation hammered out the plan to make Canada an independent country.

The Queen Victoria was, in other words, Canada’s equivalent of our Independence Hall, but she was considerably more vulnerable. Two years after the Charlottetown Conference, the vessel was swallowed by a hurricane-roiled sea off Cape Hatteras. Her 41 crewmembers — and the 90-pound bell — were rescued by the Gouldsboro brig Ponvert. In gratitude, the crew presented the bell to the Ponvert’s captain, Rufus Allen. In 1875, Allen presented it to the Prospect Harbor School, which stood where town hall is today. The bell now sits in a glass case in the Peninsula School.

The Canadian Museum of History’s recent request to display “Canada’s Liberty Bell” has reawakened local distrust that dates to the early 1960s when a Royal Canadian Navy rear admiral called for the bell’s repatriation. Rumors swirled of a Canadian plot to steal the bell, which was moved to the town hall vault. The Canadians tried again to reclaim the bell in 1973, 1988, and 2006, at which point Gouldsboro voters agreed to have local bell maker Dick Fisher create a replica, which was presented to the city of Charlottetown.

As the retired president of the Milwaukee Public Museum, Bowen says he is inclined to believe Jean-Francois Lozier, curator at the Canadian Museum of History, when he writes, “I can assure the people of Gouldsboro that neither the museum, nor the Canadian government, would try to confiscate the bell. It will be returned.” The bell, Bowen points out, will be in prestigious company: the original 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which drew the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick, is being loaned to the exhibit by the U.S. National Archives. If the National Archives trusts the Canadians, Bowen asks, why wouldn’t Gouldsboro?

“Besides,” he adds, “it’s the neighborly thing to do.”