What's up with that?

The Empire ponders how the bells toll in downtown Juneau

Posted: Friday, November 29, 2002

"...All the heavens, seem to twinkle

With a crystalline delight;

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells

From the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells-

From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells..."

- from "The Bells," by Edgar Allan Poe.

There's nothing like hearing bells chime the hour, toll for weddings and funerals, or clang a melody into the sky. Whether hanging in a church steeple or dangling from the side of a horse-drawn sleigh - as Poe was referring to in the above excerpt from his famous poem - the notes of bells hang in the air and can take on so many different qualities.

Which brings us to our question this week: What's the story behind the bells that ring in lower downtown Juneau, where there don't seem to be any churches or other obvious sources for the sound?

The "bells" you hear as you go about your errands downtown actually emanate from the metal rods of a Schulmerich carillon, amplified and broadcast from the top of the Sealaska building at the foot of Main Street.

The carillon was originally installed in 1962 in the National Bank of Alaska building, now Wells Fargo.

Some years later, after the Sealaska building was completed and offered a lofty perch for the carillon, a group of local residents and downtown business owners banded together to raise money to refurbish and move the machine. One of those local residents, J. Allan MacKinnon, recalled that about $20,000 was raised for the project.

MacKinnon said the Schulmerich carillon has three keyboards and 75 "bells" - actually metal rods - "which, when amplified, sound very close to cast-iron bells."

At the time of the move, MacKinnon said, the carillon was in need of updating.

"Essentially, what we had in the '60s was old technology," he said. The "guts" of the machine were sent to the Schulmerich factory in Sellersville, Pa., where the carillon was converted to digital operation - with transistors and chips running the show instead of old tubes.

The carillon can mimic three types of bells - Flemish, celeste and harp. Flemish bells are the large, booming church-bell-like sounds; celeste bells produce high, bright notes; and harp bells fall in between.

The carillon is very low maintenance, MacKinnon said. It's programmed to chime the hour, and also can be set to play certain songs at certain times of day. It even automatically adjusts for daylight savings time.

MacKinnon said the carillon can be played live, but tapes - similar to those that run a player piano - usually run the show.

"If they're hearing musical selections, it's pre-recorded digital tapes," he said.

There are patriotic-song tapes and holiday-song tapes. MacKinnon said the carillon didn't play tunes last summer - the months just slipped by before anyone could get in to get the programming done - but it may get cranked up to play for holiday shoppers next month.

As far as "real" church bells downtown go, the Cathedral of the Nativity on Fifth and Gold streets has a bell. There also was a bell in the old Juneau Methodist Church on Fourth and Seward, MacKinnon said. That church was razed to build the Dimond Courthouse, and the bell now sits on display on the grounds of Northern Light United Church on 11th Street, near the Federal Building.

Andrew Krueger's high school English teachers would be proud of the literary reference in this week's column, and he can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com. Send your What's Up With That comments and questions to whatsup@juneauempire.com.

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