Get ready for Milwaukee Day!

Milwaukee City Hall postcard

Milwaukee’s City Hall, a civic landmark since 1895. The bell tower is 353 feet tall. Carl Swanson collection

Tomorrow is 4/14, also known as Milwaukee Day after the city’s 414 telephone area code. You can read up on all the day’s special events here. The activities range from a giant happy hour to the ringing of the City Hall bell.

So rarely is the bell heard that few people know it exists. But in the days when it regularly tolled the City Hall bell could be heard in Thiensville, 30 miles away.

The bell is eight feet tall, eight feet, eight inches in diameter – the largest in the U.S. at the time of its casting – and bears this verse by Henry Baumgartner, then 10th Ward alderman:

“When I toll the hour of the day
From this grand and lofty steeple,
Deem it a reminder, pray,
To be honest with the people.”

Cast in bronze and weighing 10 tons, the bell was hoisted into position in 1896 by four men turing a capstan winding a rope around a cylinder. It took 16 hours to raise the bell to its perch, 200 feet above street level.

The bell sounded every hour and quarter-hour until October 1925, when it became apparent its vibrations were weakening the tower and threatening to return the bell to ground level a lot faster than it went up. Mayor Daniel Hoan ordered it silenced, saying, “No doubt both the hides and skulls of public officials are thick enough to immunize us all from danger, but we must protect the general public.”

It has rung only infrequently since.

In 1909, the bell, originally known as “Big Ben,” was officially rechristened “Solomon Juneau.” To get in the 414 mood, take a moment to read about the real Solomon Juneau, the big-hearted French-Canadian fur trader who founded our city with considerable help from his remarkable wife, Josette.

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