GOULDSBORO, Maine — Despite concerns some local residents had that their town’s famous bell never would be returned, it was hand-delivered amid minor fanfare Wednesday to the town by Canadian officials.
The ship’s bell, considered to be the Canadian equivalent of the Liberty Bell, was loaned temporarily by the town to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, in 2014. On Wednesday dozens of people, including more than 100 pupils from Peninsula School, gathered in the school gym in the local village of Prospect Harbor to formally receive the bell back from Canadian authorities.
The loan, which local voters approved in June 2014, was not without controversy.
The months leading up to Gouldsboro’s annual town meeting that summer revealed fissures among residents as they took sides in the debate.
Some wanted to make the loan, saying that museums frequently borrow and then return artifacts to their owners and that having the bell exhibited in the national Canadian museum would raise Gouldsboro’s profile. Others claimed that Canadians previously had pressured the town, unsuccessfully, to give the bell permanently to Canada and that if the bell traveled across the border it would never be given back.
None of the acrimony that divided the town 18 months ago was on display Wednesday in the school gym. What was on display was the bell, which weighs 90 pounds and is 19 inches wide at its base, and a scale model of the S.S. Queen Victoria, the ship that had borne the bell.
The model ship, which had been part of the same exhibit about how Canada became independent from the United Kingdom in the 1860s, has been given to the town by the museum as a symbol of gratitude for lending the bell.
David Alward, a former premier of New Brunswick who now serves as Canada’s general consul to New England, and Nicolas Gauvin, an official with the Canadian History Museum, were in Gouldsboro on Wednesday to thank the town and its residents for the loan and to present them with the model ship.
“The bell we are returning to you today played an important part in [Canadian independence],” Gauvin told attendees. “Thank you for lending us this important symbol of how our country came to be. This marks the first time in 150 years the bell has returned to Canada and we are very proud to have been able to include it in our exhibition.”
In 1864, the Queen Victoria hosted colonial delegates in the harbor of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, as they met to begin the process of forming a country independent of the United Kingdom. Three years later, in 1867, the confederation of Canada as a sovereign nation became reality.
The fate of the ship, which normally was used as a cargo vessel, was less glamorous. In 1866, a year before Canada’s confederation, it was steaming back to the Canadian colonies from Cuba when it encountered rough weather and began to sink off the coast of North Carolina.
A passing American ship, captained by Gouldsboro native Rufus Allen, rescued the crew before the Queen Victoria went down. Out of gratitude, the rescued sailors brought the ship’s bell with them as they boarded his ship, called the Ponvert, and gave it to the captain.
With the exception of the recent loan, the bell has been in Gouldsboro ever since.
In 2006, as a sign of good will, a replica of the bell was given as a gift by the town of Gouldsboro to the city of Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island. The replica was made by Gouldsboro bell maker Richard Fisher with funds raised locally through private donations.
Roger Bowen, a Gouldsboro selectman who had championed the loan of the historic bell to the Canadian museum, told the schoolchildren at Wednesday’s event that it is important that they know the bell’s history and that they be willing to share that history with Canadians.
“You’ll probably be asked [someday] by the Canadian History Museum, ‘Can we borrow the bell again?’ I encourage you to respond positively,” Bowen said. “It will be your decision to make.”
Town officials likely will have to make another decision about the bell before the museum or another Canadian institution asks to borrow it again. Currently, they do not have long-term plans for where they will keep the bell.
Gouldsboro’s town manager, Bryan Kaenrath, said Wednesday that both the bell and the model ship will be kept at the town office for the time being. The bell had been kept in a display case in the school’s lobby since it first opened in 2009.
“There are a lot of people in town who would like to see [the bell] in a more public place,” Kaenrath said.
Since the bell’s unique connection to Canadian history became widely known in the 1960s, the town has not had a place to permanently display it.
After Allen gave the bell to the town in 1875, it was mounted at the schoolhouse in Prospect Harbor for 75 years and then was kept and maintained for a while by the Prospect Harbor Women’s Club. More recently, for several years it sat on the floor of the town vault in the Gouldsboro town office, just a few yards away from the entrance to Peninsula School on Route 186.
Ideally, the bell — and now the model ship, too — would be kept in a secure building accessible to local residents and tourists alike, according to the town manager.