Cornell College was founded in 1853. In 1882, a large stone chapel was opened on the Mount Vernon campus, with a massive clock and bell tower on top that would chime the hours for decades.
In 1888, the bells inspired Cornell student Kate Dougherty to write a song, “Chapel Bell.”
And in 2020, the chapel clock and bell tower were restored, making it safe for the large bells to once again ring.
Cornell when it opened was initially called the Iowa Conference Seminary, offering classes in a three-story, 40-by-70-foot brick building — called “Old Sem” — on a hill in Mount Vernon.
A Dubuque newspaper editor in 1859 called the college “a light upon a hill” and “one of the pet institutions of the Methodists.”
“We believe it is the largest building of its kind in the state,” the editor continued. “It is a well-built, commodious structure, an ornament to the place, and highly creditable to the enterprise of the denomination through whose agency it has been erected. It overlooks a wide range of country. From its observatory we have one of the best views to be enjoyed in this part of the state.”
A few years later, a 55-by-100 foot building with a basement went up on the 23-acre campus.
In hopes of impressing a New York philanthropist, the college’s trustees renamed the school Cornell College in 1857. William Wesley Cornell was not impressed, but the name stuck.
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Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., wouldn’t be founded for another eight years. It was named for Sen. Ezra Cornell, the founder of Western Union, who donated land and money for the private university.
Leadership, a Chapel
The Rev. R.W. Keeler was Cornell College’s first president. Matthew Cavanaugh and Mary Fellows were the first two students to graduate, in 1858, and they later married.
By 1859, Cornell had 190 students. The Rev. S.M. Fellows was Cornell’s president from 1860 to 1863.
He was succeeded by the Rev. William Fletcher King, who was the Cornell’s president for 45 years until 1908, becoming one of the longest serving college presidents in the United States. He was president emeritus until his death Oct. 23, 1921.
King was traveling in Europe when the trustees decided in 1874 to build a chapel on campus. King tried to dissuade the trustees from undertaking such a big project, but construction started in 1875. The walls were two-thirds completed when the contractor went bankrupt. His employees filed liens against the college, and the entire campus had to be mortgaged.
By 1882, the debts had been paid and the chapel completed and opened.
Made of stone, the chapel could seat 1,600. The clock in its tower was made by the Seth Thomas Clock Co. It originally had four large bells — weighing 2,000, 500, 275 and 110 pounds — to chime the hours,
The chapel was refurbished in 1931. The clock faces were repainted and its hands and numbers regilded. The front steps were replaced. New pews replaced worn ones. A new Kimball pipe organ was installed.
In honor of its long-serving president, Cornell rededicated the chapel in 1940 as the William Fletcher King Memorial Chapel.
By 1950, the tolling of the big bells was taking a toll on the tower atop the chapel.
A.L. Killian, president of the Cornell board of trustees, gave a set of carillon bells to Cornell shortly before his death in September 1950. The new bells took over the tolling of the hours, and the large bells, at some point, went silent.
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“The heart of the new bell installation is a series of vibrating steel rods affixed to a brick sustaining pier in one of the lower classrooms of King Chapel,” a Gazette story said in 1950. “The vibrations of these rods are picked up electronically and transmitted to loudspeakers, or ‘stentors,’ in the tower of the chapel.”
In 1977, the chapel’s 500-pound bell was moved to the College Hall bell tower. Lightning struck College Hall (Old Main) on Sept. 7, 2012, destroying the tower and melting the bell.
The carillon bells were out of commission for a while — from October 1979 to March 1980 — when the electronic system wore out and parts to fix it were difficult to find.
In 2019, Cornell undertook a restoration of the clock tower atop King Chapel, making it strong enough to hold the collective weight of the three remaining bells. An expert was hired to restore the Seth Thomas clock, a job that took a year.
On Jan. 16, 2020, the bells in the chapel’s tower began ringing again.
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