Concord revives historic fire horn

The fog-horn-like bellow that echoed throughout downtown Concord Jan. 6 could become a regular tradition.

The Concord City Council recently directed Concord Fire and Life Safety to restore its 1935 Gamewell diaphone and seek public opinion on re-establishing the tradition of sounding it daily at noon (except on Sundays).

Public input is sought from residents who live within a mile from downtown Concord. Two other diaphone tests were scheduled to sound at noon Jan. 6-7. An automated phone survey went out Jan. 9 through the county's Connect-CTY system and allowed resident to share comments.

Following the tests and feedback, the city council could decide whether to sound the horn, and how frequently, at its Jan. 14 meeting. Officials say the horn also could be used for special occasions such as the start of the city's Christmas parade, during remembrance ceremonies like 9-11, or for national holidays.

The horn, which sits atop the historic Station No. 1 on Church Street and faces north, once beckoned volunteer firefighters to fire locations by sounding codes that corresponded to certain cross streets. As technology advanced, the department stopped using it for emergencies but continued to sound it at noon daily and 11 times at 11 a.m. on Veteran's Day. These traditions were practiced until the early 1990s, when the station was re-roofed and the horn was stored but never re-installed.

The Gamewell diaphone is a device similar to but smaller than a fog horn. It produces deep, powerful tones that carry long distances. Produced by the Gamewell Corporation of Massachusetts, it was traditionally used as a municipal alarm, especially at fire stations. Some diaphones are estimated to have a range of six miles under optimum conditions.

"It has a very unique sound - something between a train horn and a fog horn. People will recognize it when they hear it," said Chief Randy Holloway, adding that restoring the decades-old tradition could help the city create new traditions.

The project also aligns with future plans for the historic fire station. Turning the station into a museum is among the city's long-range plans.

"The city council has authorized us to turn this building into a fire museum eventually," said Holloway. "So, when we found that old horn and knew it was part of the station's history and traditions, we thought, 'Why not put it back in service?'"

A former mechanic at the department found the diaphone about a year ago while cleaning out storage cabinets, and the idea of restoring it grew. Captain John Eury and Battalion Chief James Eisenhower, both with family firefighting roots, took up restoration efforts. The restoration of the diaphone cost $800 in materials. The firefighters volunteered their time to restore it.

Eury, who lives in Concord, has been with the department 28 years, and his grandfather was the chief of the downtown station in the 1970s.

"When I came here in 1982, it was a tradition to blow it every day at noon," he said. "I think it really sets us apart because there aren't too many of these diaphones left operating in the Southeast. I think bringing the tradition back is a wonderful idea. Once people know the story behind it, they can share it with friends and family. It'll take a little recognition, but I think it's going to go over well."

Eisenhower, a Kannapolis native whose cousin was a fire chief for the Kannapolis Fire Department, said re-establishing part of fire department history adds to the excitement behind the station restoration effort.

"We've had some old-timers that used to work here ... who really enjoyed hearing it," he said. "The main reason I wanted to restore it was because of the history of the fire department and to remember past and current firefighters. Knowing that it was blowing when I came here in 1986, and knowing the history is going to continue is great. And, hopefully, long after I'm gone, I hope these younger generations see how important it was because I see how important it is to these older guys."

Councilmen Lamar Barrier and David Phillips were on hand for today's blast. Both men grew up in the nearby Wil-Mar Park neighborhood and remember hearing it when they were younger. They said they remember it being louder and longer, producing a sound that went from a lower tone to a higher tone. They both support re-establishing the tradition.

"I don't see where there would be any negative impact on the residents," said Barrier. "Besides, it brings a little bit of history back to the city and the fire department."

While some of the workers in the Wachovia Bank building across the street said they didn't hear the 1.5-second blast, Captain Mike Carter said he and other firefighters heard it from Station No. 2 on Warren C. Coleman Boulevard, about 2 miles away.

"It didn't offend me," said Gina Lowery, a Wachovia employee and longtime downtown resident. "It's right behind us, and it didn't distract me. It wasn't very loud."