At times if the wind was right, when a Dominion Atlantic Railway train pulled into the Kentville station you could hear the locomotive bell clanging at least a kilometre away.
For generations, at stations like Kentville, at crossings, towns and villages along the old DAR line, it was a familiar sound, an iconic sound that in one sense symbolized the railway. People recalling the railway today often speak about the locomotive bells – the locomotives and stations are long gone, the tracks torn up, but the reminiscing more times than not is about how much they remember about the slow, sometimes melancholy chimes of train bells.
Bells were standard equipment on steam locomotives in Canada beginning early in the 19th century – they were obviously necessary at crossings and stations to alert people. Most locomotive bells were made of brass or bronze and could weigh as much as a hundred kilograms. A bell from one of the larger DAR locomotives, housed in a private collection in Port Williams, is estimated to weigh at least 50 kilograms.
Some bells were noted for their musical tones and according to one historical writer, they could sound low and sour, or loud and sweetly. Some people, railway employees in particular, claimed they could tell which locomotives were coming into a station by the sound of the bell.
The majority of steam locomotives that were replaced by diesels were taken apart for salvage. But here in Nova Scotia, in Middleton for example, and in other areas across Canada, some of the old locomotives are displayed intact in railway museums.
However, most of the bells that adorned the old-time DAR locomotives met a different fate. While some were scrapped or ended up in museums and private collections, a few lived on to be heard ringing around the countryside in church belfries.
Take the bell from steam locomotive number 5551, for example, which ran on the DAR line out of Kentville for about 50 years: when this locomotive was taken out of service and dismantled for salvage in Kentville, its bell was donated to St. Michaels and All Angels Church in Canning. The church, which was consecrated in 1906, acknowledged this in one of its newsletters, noting that a “bell from one of the last steam locomotives (to run on the line) was gifted by the Dominion Atlantic Railway and installed in the belfry to summon worshippers to Sunday services.”
The bell saw service in St. Michaels from 1959 to 2018. St. Michaels was deconsecrated in 2018 and the bell was removed and sold. Today, like many of the DAR locomotive bells, it rests gleaming and brand new looking in a private Kentville collection.