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Special Collections & Archives

The rare or unique holdings of Nimitz Library.

Mahan Hall Clock Tower Bell Turns 100

by Samuel Limneos on 2022-07-14T14:48:39-04:00 in History | Comments
Mahan Hall Bell, 1970.

The familiar chimes ringing the hours from the Mahan Hall clock tower provide a harmonious atmosphere to the grounds of the United States Naval Academy.  Turning 100 years old in 2022, the bronze bell tolling from the tower is one of the few in the world composed of ships’ bells.

One of Ernest Flagg's plans for the Academic Building and Library.

Between 1907 and 1922, the tower likely housed a bell the was relocated from the academy’s “New Quarters” dormitory cupola. On June 7, 1922, Superintendent Henry B. Wilson wrote the McShane Bell Foundry of Baltimore requesting an estimate for casting a 3,000-pound bell from old bells. Hesitant to burden the academy’s annual appropriations with an expensive private contract, Wilson wrote Rear Admiral Louis M. Nulton, commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, to explore the feasibility of casting the bell at the yard's foundry. Together with Wilson, Nulton drew up plans to utilize bronze from the bells of the decommissioned battleships USS Indiana, USS Massachusetts, USS Alabama, and USS Michigan.

Mahan Hall, 1924.

Navy aviators scuttled the oldest of the battleships, the Indiana launched in 1893, in the Chesapeake Bay during November 1920 aviation bombing tests. The Massachusetts, laid down in 1891, briefly served alongside the Indiana as a training ship during the 1910 and 1911 midshipman summer cruises before coastal battery and railway artillery tests sank her in the Gulf of Mexico in November 1921. The life-sized ornament of a sword-bearing, winged goddess of victory that was mounted on Massachusetts's lead gun turret currently resides in the academy’s Dahlgren Hall. Laid down in 1896, the Alabama also sailed with the 1919 summer cruise, before naval aviators subjected her to chemical warfare and heavy bomb tests in the Chesapeake in 1921. The Michigan served as a training ship on the 1917, 1918, and 1920 midshipman summer cruises, before she was remanded to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for scrapping in accordance with the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty.

View from the Mahan Hall clocktower belfry looking northwest, 1926.

The stricken battleships’ bells were already conveniently gathered at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, so Nulton and Wilson requisitioned $277 for casting the new bell in October 1922. On April 9, 1923, it arrived at the academy, and in an exchange of letters ending on April 28, Nulton wrote Wilson of his pleasure “to know the tone of the bell is good and everything has turned out all right.” While the bell’s exact installation date remains unknown, by the following month, one midshipman felt compelled to comment on the academy’s new addition. “Most of us hear the mellow tones of the new bell sounding the hours in the belfry of Mahan Hall,” the Log of the United States Naval Academy's editor wrote, "but few know its particular history. Four bells cast in Germany were for many years the ship’s bells of the battleships Indiana, Massachusetts, Alabama and Michigan, and when these ships were scrapped it seemed appropriate that these four bells be recast into one, to be presented to Rear Admiral Henry B. Wilson. So, the new bell was made when these ships went out of commission at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and the superintendent had it installed in the tower of Mahan Hall, where it now tolls the nautical hours."

Today, the bell chimes louder than ever on the cusp of its second century of use at the Naval Academy.

Sources:

Card file: “Bell, N.A.” Folder 10, Box 2, Entry 38: “Name and Subject Card Index to Entry 39, 1922-1927,” Record Group 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

Editor, “The New Bell.” Log of the United States Naval Academy Vol. 1, No. 32 (May 18, 1923), 16. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

“Reference File – Buildings and Grounds – Mahan Hall – Hart Room / Tower Clock.” Record Group 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.


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