My First Segment in a series about Historic Placerville
Many a morning as I sit in the local coffee shop "Centro" I gaze at the bell tower, and for some reason the sencond to last paragraph of this story runs through my mind. (The tower has watched most of Placerville's history pass beneath it, especially in the days when the plaza was the center of life. People met beneath its bell to share the news, discuss the weather and to watch the world go by.)
The Story of the BellTower
The BellTower on Historic Main Street is a unique sight. Not many towns can boast of such a structure in the middle of their town. It has its own history, and in its day served a most vital and important role. It was first called "the Plaza".
Placerville suffered three fires in 1856 which destroyed a good portion of the business section. The citizens realized the need for an alarm system to quickly call their volunteer fire department, so a bell was ordered from England to serve their purpose.
Cast in 1860, it arrived in Placerville in 1865 and the City gave approval to place it in a tower on the Plaza - at the cost of $380.00. First a 25 foot high wooden tower was built in 1878, and then in 1898 a steel structure was built to replace it. This tower rose 50 feet from an 11 foot square concrete base, with a drinking fountain in the center. It had cast-iron ornaments topped with a weather vane and featured a miniature bronze fireman holding aloft a red globe containing an electric light. When completed it was presented to the city on September 8, 1898 during their Admission Day celebration,
The Tower was dismantled and moved to Cannon Hill in 1911. Cannon Hill received its name because in the early days, there was on top of the hill a National Guard Armory that had a mounted cannon in front of the building and thus the name "Cannon Hill" was given to the area. Electrical difficulties in ringing the bell from Cannon Hill resulted in the bell being moved back to the plaza in 1912. It stood there through the years until a car struck the Plaza in 1965, almost toppling over the bell.
It had become somewhat shabby over the years and some were in favor of its removal. But the old timers, remembering why it was there, insisted it should be saved. Finally, in 1969, the City Council and the Placerville Fire Department voted to renovate the structure and the project was completed in 1970 with an electric siren installed to replace the new silent bell for the second time. The first electric siren was installed by the late Joseph Leonardi assisted by several linemen of the old Western States Gas and Electric Co.(later purchased by P. G. & E.) This occurred sometime between 1920 and 1921 shortly before the Ohio House burned. Along with the 1970 installation, three other sirens were installed. One near El Dorado High School and Bennett Park; one in "Upper Town"(now Broadway) near the Lutheran Church; and one on the Sacramento Street Fire House (Station No. 1).
The tower has watched most of Placerville's history pass beneath it, especially in the days when the plaza was the center of life. People met beneath its bell to share the news, discuss the weather and to watch the world go by.
Celebrations were big occasions in days gone by with bands, parades, dances, speeches and picnics, and they usually were centered on the Plaza. Pictures taken on Main Street on these special days show large crowds, and in the background, the BellTower, with glorious decorations of bunting, flags, and garlands. Even today, a long standing tradition of decorating the BellTower on the 4th of July remains.