GOULDSBORO, Maine — At the end of about half an hour of debate, voters at the local annual town meeting decided Wednesday night to loan the town’s famous bell to a Canadian museum for an upcoming exhibit.
The bell, which used to be mounted on the S.S. Queen Victoria and which the town of Gouldsboro has owned since 1875, has been described as Canada’s version of the Liberty Bell. In 1864, the Queen Victoria hosted delegates to confederation talks in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, which historians say laid the groundwork for Canada becoming an independent country from the United Kingdom three years later.
The bell hung and was rung in a schoolhouse for many years in the local village of Prospect Harbor. For a while, after its significance to Canada’s confederation was rediscovered, security concerns prompted town officials to store it in the vault at the town office. The bell, which is about two feet high and weighs 90 pounds, is now kept in a display case at the new Peninsula School in Prospect Harbor.
Approximately 120 people attended Gouldsboro’s annual town meeting on Wednesday night, which was held at the school. After debating the proposed loan, a majority of those in attendance loudly said ‘yes’ when the moderator called for a voice vote on the warrant article. A moment later, only a few people shouted ‘no’ in formal response.
The bell will be loaned to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, for an exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation period. The museum, which has pledged to insure the bell and guarantee its return in writing, will display the bell from Nov. 11 of this year through Sept. 9, 2015.
The proposal has been controversial. In the days and weeks leading up to the vote, some residents had encouraged people to vote against it. Beatrice Buckley, former head of the local historical society, was one of the more vocal opponents of the measure.
“I’m angry,” Buckley said after Wednesday night’s meeting. She repeated her belief that residents who have moved to Gouldsboro after growing up outside Maine are to blame for the interest in lending out the bell.
“They don’t know the history [of the bell] and they don’t give a hoot,” Buckley said.
The bell wound up in Gouldsboro after the Charlottetown conference because the Queen Victoria sank in 1866 in a storm off the coast of North Carolina. A Gouldsboro-built vessel named Ponvert, which happened to be captained by a Gouldsboro resident, was nearby and came to its aid, rescuing the entire Queen Victoria crew before it sank beneath the waves.
In their gratitude at being saved, the crew of Queen Victoria brought the ship’s bell with them and gave it to the Ponvert’s captain, Rufus Allen, as they boarded the ship. Allen kept the bell for nine years and then gave it to Gouldsboro.
Since the 1960s, when Canadian officials learned that the bell in Gouldsboro was the same as the one on the ship that played an integral role in Canada’s independence, there has been interest in Canada in the bell. In 2005, in recognition of that interest, the town commissioned local bell maker Richard Fisher to make a replica of the bell that it donated to the city of Charlottetown.
According to Buckley, there were provocative demands years ago from Canadian authorities that the bell be given back — a characterization others have disputed. She says she fears that if the bell crosses the border into Canada, it never will be returned to Gouldsboro.
Roger Bowen, a selectman who has been a vocal supporter of the proposal, spoke for several minutes at the meeting about what he saw as the benefits of lending the bell to the museum, which he said outweigh the possible drawbacks. He said lending the bell will not cost Gouldsboro anything financially but it will help promote the town’s history to potentially millions of people.
“Thousands upon thousands [of people] will go through the museum in Canada, their Smithsonian [Museum], and they will see the bell and they will see the little story written about it and Gouldsboro will suddenly go on the map of Canada,” Bowen said.
A few people who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting were sympathetic with Buckley’s concerns and said the bell should stay in Gouldsboro. But most who spoke voiced support for lending the bell.
“I think we should do anything to support our Canadian neighbors,” Albert Higgins said.
In a prepared statement, Mark O’Neill, president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History, said museum officials are “very pleased” with the outcome of Wednesday’s vote. He said the museum plans to note in the exhibit the role that Gouldsboro and its residents have played in the bell’s history.
“Their heroic efforts to rescue the crew of the SS Queen Victoria in 1866 will be featured in the exhibition, so that visitors to the museum will learn of this important episode in the ongoing history of American-Canadian relations,” O’Neill wrote in the statement. “The loan of this important object stands as a testament to the long-standing friendship and collaboration between our two countries, and we are very grateful to the people of Gouldsboro for making it possible.”