By Tim Bean
In 1896, workers hitched a dozen horses to a reinforced carriage and hauled Cincinnati’s new seven-foot wide bronze bell—nicknamed “Big Joe”— from the Buckeye Bell & Brass Foundry to the Saint Francis De Sales Catholic Church. Sightseers edged the road as it trundled slowly along. It wasn’t just a large bell; it was THE largest swinging bell ever cast in the United States.
The behemoth bronze bell weighed roughly 15 tons, equivalent to four hippos, and cost about $6500 to cast (about a quarter million dollars today). The bell was also a point of pride for the city: it was modeled in size and design after London’s famous Big Ben. Big Ben, however, never swung while ringing. Big Joe did. But only once.
The real chore wasn’t in hauling the bell down Cincinnati’s narrow streets to the East Walnut Hills neighborhood, but in lifting the beast the 125 feet into St. Francis Catholic Church’s bell tower. Once installed, the church would complete the church’s construction, topping the cathedral with a decorative spire, and making St. Francis over 230 feet tall.
A Rube Golberg-style system of pulleys, platforms, and ropes accomplished the job, and by January, 1896, the church prepared to ring its bell for the first time. What happened next is still hotly debated, even a century later.
The 640-pound clapper rattled and struck the swinging bell and a deafening peal shook through the church like a musical earthquake. It rattled the molars of those nearby and their vision rippled. Fresh mortar crumbled, stones cracked and sagged. The E-flat rolled out 15 miles in every direction so loud is was almost physical. Cincinnati citizens would later claim Big Joe’s peal shook then shattered windows throughout the neighborhood.
“It was installed, it swung, and all of Walnut Hills nearly jumped out of its collective skin. The earth trembled, windows nearby broke from the concussion, and tiny bits of cement were seen falling from between the stones of the church tower.”
~Cincinnati Historian Alvin Harlow
Fearing for their property and their safety, the citizenry protested and persuaded the church to silence the Big Joe’s clapper forever. Experts today doubt nearby buildings experienced any real damage from the bell’s first and only clanging; however, they do not doubt that the weight of the bell, coupled with the force of that E-flat, could have caused damage to the church’s newly-constructed bell tower.
Today, Big Joe remains a popular tourist attraction for the city, but no one will never hear its full, possibly-destructive potential again. Workers immobilized the bell in the tower and strike only the bell’s edge with a small foot hammer three times a day, marking the traditional recitation of the Angelus or “prayer of the devotee” at 6AM, noon, and 6PM.