A PRR Bell Restoration
by Pete Newman

Above. "Before" photo of the bell. Below."After" photo. Click on images for larger versions.
Above. Replacement clapper. Below.Stamped number on the bell. Click on images for larger versions.
Above. PRR #1188 Click image for a larger version.

I'm a hobbyist and restorer of transportation related antiques. I use these pieces as modern industrial artwork in my home in Florida. Here are some details and photos of my recent Pennsylvania Railroad bell restoration.

I acquired the bell from an auction house in Michigan. The auctioneer didn't have any history on the bell but reported that it was found in a storage facility in Traverse City. As shown in the "before" photo at top right it was definitely a very ugly duckling. The wheel was obviously non-standard -- more about that later.

How did I determine it was a bell from the Pennsylvania Railroad or PRR? A PRR bell is recognized by (1) the unique shape of the cradle and (2) the shape of the bell. An excellent resource for railways bells may be found at http://www.brosamersbells.com. I contacted them about a replacement clapper. While they take great care not to identify a bell they eventually did offer that they had a PRR bell clapper available. The clapper is enormous!! A PRR clapper also has a unique square notch at the top which fits into the square cutout inside the top of the bell. Additionally, the bell strike marks from the replacement clapper aligned properly on my bell. I can say with near certainty that this a PRR bell.

I'm a bit embarrassed to disclose how many hours of labor I invested in the restoration - but it was significant. The entire assembly was dismantled and stripped of all paint. Below the gray paint I found layers of black and also Tuscan red. I rust-proofed and painted all of the metal pieces. I sanded the bell as lightly as I could to maintain the historical integrity. As shown in the "after" photo at right, the bell returned to a very high shine with a mirror like finish. I constructed the stand out of oak and granite. It is now on display in my living room – it looks and sounds great!

A major question concerns what locomotve this bell was used on. Generally it is very difficult, often impossible, to uncover such information. However, some railroads did stamp locomotive numbers into the top of their bells, and this can be a starting point. In fact, there was a number stamped into the top of my bell, shown at right. Obviously I wish that the last two digits were stamped clearly. Each could be either a "3'" or and "8". This narrows the possibilities down to a few locomotives.

PRR #1133 was an 0-6-0 steam switcher locomotive with a flat area over the firebox where the bell sat. Based on the curvature of my bell's cradle I don't think this was the locomotive. PRR #1183 was a Mikado type – I have a clear photo of the locomotive, and this is a possibility. However, my hope is that it could be K4s #1188. According to Wikipedia, #1188 "…was given a boiler-top streamlined casing, but no other streamlining, and was nick-named 'The Skyline'". A photo of #1188 is shown at right.

An unusual feature of the bell as purchased was the wheel. Sadly, I fear that the wheel was added after the bell / locomotive was retired. That said, there is a slight chance that this was a modification / trial by the PRR. I am aware that the PRR was very generous in donating bells. The wheel and it's attachment to the yoke are extremely well engineered. This was definitely not a weekend hobbyist's work. It is engineered with great precision to thousandths of an inch – railroad quality. The wheel is very heavy and carries casting number 18Z1517. I do know that railroads were innovative and not opposed to trying new things - I have a picture of a K4s with air horns attached to the smoke stack! Is there a possibility that the wheel was a modification / trial (possibly under the casing of 1188)? I have never seen a picture with a wheel-equipped bell in service – but that doesn't mean it never existed! Then again, it is also very possible that the PRR modified the bell before donating it to a church, school, or firehouse. If that's the case I'd love to learn where she went after her first retirement!!

I have to wonder why this particular bell was saved. Could its locomotive's fame have kept it from being scrapped? Another possibility is suggested by the gray paint on the unrestored bell. A PRR enthusiast told me that gray paint was used on PRR MOW equipment. Was the bell removed from the locomotive and given another task on the railroad?

Finally, I've put together a Youtube video on this restoration project:


I'd be very interested if anyone has some thoughts about this bell. You can contact me by email at CanadianSteam@hotmail.com.