Norwich bell takes its place in front of City Hall

A Norwich Public Utilities lineman guides the city's Freedom Bell into position Wednesday in Norwich.
A Norwich Public Utilities lineman guides the city's Freedom Bell into position Wednesday in Norwich.

Norwich - A project in the works for three years came together with a clear, echoing ring of a bell Wednesday evening - the Norwich Freedom Bell in its new 17.5-foot high arch in front of City Hall.

A combination of local history buffs, bell enthusiasts and members of the Norwich chapter of the NAACP developed the idea that Norwich should commission the nation's first - and perhaps only - custom-cast bell to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

That idea turned into a $225,000 project funded by a state grant and private donations that put the bell in the tower, above a circular brick courtyard with a 6-foot diameter, 4-inch thick black granite plaque with the entire Emancipation Proclamation engraved on it.

The David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard, named for a Norwich native who became active in the Underground Railroad and abolition movement, will be dedicated at 10 a.m. on Oct. 19.

The Verdin Co. of Cincinnati cast the bell at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park in June 2012, and its ring highlighted a Jan. 1 ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary using a temporary frame.

Crews from the Verdin Co., Norwich Public Utilities and Norwich Public Works on Wednesday erected the bell's permanent arch, and at 6:20 p.m., Kevin Harkins, president of Friends of the Norwich Bells, pushed the remote control that signaled the hammer to strike the bell for the first time in its new home.

"I'm just in awe," said city Historian Dale Plummer, chairman of the Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Committee that oversaw the project. "It's one thing to see it on the architect's drawing board and another to see it completed."

The arched tower, designed by New London architectural firm Barun Basu Associates, is fitting for several reasons, Plummer said.

Plummer said the committee considered a Victorian-era tower design but decided instead on a simple contemporary frame that "looked to the future."

The bell won't be set to ring at regular intervals, as it is surrounded by the City Hall clock tower and several church bells that ring hourly. But it can be rung either in person by the remote control or by a city computer control that can be programmed to ring the bell to mark special occasions.

Several already are planned, said committee member Shiela Hayes, including the Jan. 1 Emancipation Proclamation anniversary, Martin Luther King Day and July 4. The committee will present a list of recommended dates to the City Council for approval, Hayes said.

Norwich residents can request the bell be rung to mark personal or even national events. Whenever the president calls for a national bell-ringing ceremony, Norwich will participate, said committee member Gregory Perry, pastor of the Greeneville Congregational Church.

Tri-County Memorials donated time and labor to engrave the granite plaque with the words of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Tri-County's crew will engrave the plaque in place sometime within the next week.

City Public Works crews will set the bricks in place starting today, weather permitting. About 100 commemorative bricks have been sold and have been engraved with purchasers' messages.

All work is expected to be done in time for the Oct. 19 dedication, Plummer said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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