OP-ED: Bells united Americans, Yorkers


As news came from Appomattox Courthouse of the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia that Palm Sunday afternoon 1865, it was met with great joy and anticipation. The news spread. The "Twitters" of the day, the telegraphers, bee-lined for the newspapers and county seats to dispatch the heralded news — Peace Across The Land.

In York, the belfry of courthouse at 28 E. Market St. rippled the arrival of this message, and the clamor was soon joined with belfries in the region. The anticipation was met with throngs of rejoicing much sooner, per The Gazette's April 11, 1865, account:

"At one o'clock, all the stores and other places of business were closed, to allow all an opportunity to take part in the demonstration. During the forming and marching of the procession, many of the fire and church bells were rung." (Thanks to the York County Heritage Trust's Lila Fourhman-Shull for sharing this article.)

Yorkers throughout the county turned out in great excitement, the likes not seen since Continental Congress announced the ratification of The Articles of Confederation 87 years prior.

In this 21st century era of immediate news reporting and Tweeting, we quickly learn things happening globally. The formation of "Bells Across York City and County" also captured this fervor. I noted Facebook post by the National Park Service (NPS) about communities across our country participating in this milestone event in American history, and it laid on my heart that it should have the illustrious beauty of the bells of York's many spires. And, that it would rekindle — even for a moment — a time when we all should unite for reflection and visioning.

Serving in 1999 as artistic director to two of York County 250th Anniversary's signature events — the Grand Parade and the Encampment on Penn Common — my interest was creating the settings befitting so monumental an occasion. One of my secret desires then was at the kick-off of the parade from Continental Square to have a cacophony of bells peal throughout York's downtown, signaling the start of this amazing event. It never materialized due to the breadth of details relative to such a large pageant.

When the NPS posting came to my attention, I became both galvanized and inspired to see if I could make it happen on some scale — and, it did, and in a larger way than expected, but not without endorsement and effort.

I wish to thank the York County Heritage Trust for picking up on my post on Facebook, especially Joan J. Mummert, whose guidance of "The Trust" is one of invigoration and vision, partnering with my penchant. Her staff pitched into the fray, all to be congratulated for opening the Colonial Courthouse for this event. Also commendable is York Mayor Kim Bracey sharing in this moment.

Secondly, many thanks to our county commissioners — Steve Chronister, Doug Hoke and Chris Reilly — who along with county spokesman Carl Lindquist gave their endorsement and spread the word. Thirdly, a large thanks to longtime York pal Rick Cunningham for granting access atop the Hotel Yorktowne (I still call it that) to videograph this moment for posterity. In line with that, thanks to a good friend, Tom Feninez, for his willingness to heed my plea, my call to serve as videographer of this event. It will soon be posted on YouTube.

Thanks also to the many churches, fire houses and public buildings that participated, and to the local media for spreading the word via their outlets. Some of these bells have not pealed in unison for scores of years.

Lastly, my family, who know my ardor for such things York, and the passion that envelops me on these matters: my dear wife Christine, daughter Olivia and also daughter Aaren, who took up the charge to ring the bell at York First Moravian in my stead that I could be atop the Yorktowne to absorb this "Profusion in Bells" moment, chronicling the pivotal turning point in our American history.

I told 12-year-old Aaren it might be the last time I shall hear the spires of York all ring in unity as such, a watershed moment for me, and perhaps she will pick up the mantle of my meager duty in 50 years. However, with due optimism I will strive to find an occasion more immediate to do this again, for in a segment lasting four minutes, we Yorkers all united, as did our fellow Americans, to pause and signal the end of a period of strife and a renewal of our purpose.

I aspire that the York community — as it allied in this — will continually connect in new ways as we push forward.

— Terrence Downs is a resident of North York.