For decades, Correction staff, inmates and visitors have passed a large bell displayed on Rikers Island.

Rikers Island bell images on this web page are by Tom O'Connor, photographer, for NYCHS. All rights thereto are retained and reserved by both. Unquoted text on this web page is by Thomas McCarthy for NYCHS. All rights thereto are retained and reserved by both.

It hangs over a wooden platform from a huge wooden yoke raised up by four beautifully curved wooden supports, two beneath each end of the yoke. The much-weathered wood and metal assembly rests on a red brick rectangular platform centered on a circular red brick walk.


Telcom building sign behind bell.
Photographer Tom O'Connor image for NYCHS.

The mounted bell is situated near the Telecommunications building and TEAMS trailer where Hazen Street, north of Mandanici Road and North Infirmary Command, veers increasingly westward.

A light pole there bears two street signs: “Executive Circle” and “Carl Ceo Plaza.”

But the bell was on Rikers long before Shore Road became Mandanici Road, before the “Circle” and “Plaza” signs went up, before the TEAMS trailer arrived, and even before the Telcom center was built.

The Question
During one or more of those fleeting but recurring sightings that DOC staffers, inmates and visitors have had of the bell, many have wondered, however momentarily, about it being on Rikers, perhaps silently spectulating "For what was that bell rung?"

The question is similar to the title of Ernest Hemingway’s book about the pre-WWII Spanish civil war: For Whom the Bell Tolls.


Street signs on pole near bell. Barely a month after becoming Deputy Chief, Carl Ceo was killed in an August 1980 auto accident as he responded to a Rikers emergency. The memorial street sign was installed May 11, 1983.
Photographer Tom O'Connor image for NYCHS.
That title derived from a line in "Meditation XVII" of Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions published in 1624 by John Donne, a poet, lawyer, politician and cleric:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less . . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Absent documentation and eye-witness recollection directly and definitively answering the question, For Whom Did Riker Island Bell Toll?, we are left evaluating what circumstantial evidence we find.

But from such we can at least construct a historically well-grounded and reasonably plausible scenario that will have to suffice even as research continues for a direct and definitive resolution of the question.

Bell Letters
The first bit of evidence to examine is the lettering on the bell itself.

The letters on the surface of the bell facing the Telcom building are all same-size capitals and spell out in two centered lines the name of the bell’s manufacturer:



Lettering on bell surface facing Telcom building identifies manufacturer.
Photographer Tom O'Connor image for NYCHS.

The letters on the surface of the bell facing away from the Telcom building are a combination of “full cap” and “small cap.” They spell out in four centered lines the name of the company for whom the bell was cast and when:

A.D. 1899


Lettering facing away from Telcom identifies for whom bell was made.
Photographer Tom O'Connor image for NYCHS.

Both sets of lettering employ serif-faced fonts.

Serifs are those little frills at the ends of a character that help the eye follow the line of type and thus make reading easier. The serif-less faces called sans serif (French for without serifs) had not yet become popular as they would beginning in the 1920s when they took hold in the less-frills world of the post-WWI era.


Wm. McKinely

Rbt. VanWyck
F. J. Lantry
When Meneely cast the bell for Union Ferry in 1899, William McKinley was President, Robert A. VanWyck was NYC's first 5-borough mayor, and Francis J. Lantry was DOC Commissioner.
In our own era, serif faces continue to retain dominance in the body type of books, magazines and newspapers. But sans serif faces find much favor in headlines, large advertising text or special text to be set off from the serif rest. For example, the body text of this web page is set in Times Roman, a serif face, whereas the top headline, sub-heads and captions are set in Arial, a sans serif.

If the bell were cast today, its lettering would as likely be sans serif as not. But not so back in 1899; then the serifs held sway over all typographic turf just as dominantly as the McKinley-led U.S. held sway over Cuba and Puerto Rico surrendered by Spain. Or as Tammany held sway again at City Hall in the administration of Robert A. Van Wyck, Greater (5-borough) NYC’s first mayor, who replaced fusion reform mayor William L. Strong.

The latter had fostered and presided over establishing in 1895/1896 the Department of Correction (DOC) and the Department of Public Charities as two separate agencies. Previously they had been bundled together in a single dual agency, the Department of Public Charities and Correction.

In 1899, when Meneely Co. cast the bell that eventually came to be on Rikers, DOC was headed by Francis J. Lantry. He had been variously a butcher, a butchers' union leader, and an Alderman. He also happened to be the Tammany leader in the 16th District where lived Van Wyck who on his first day as mayor, Jan. 1, 1898, appointed Lantry as Correction Commissioner.

Rikers Island, purchased by NYC only a dozen years earlier, was in 1899 little more than a small penal farm colony on its way to becoming home to a cluster of huge trash heaps.

Municipal dumping had been in progress, if one dare use the term in that context, a half dozen years.

Eventually the garbage mounds would be leveled into landfill, expanding the island’s 87 acres into some 415 acres.


Navigation map detail depicts Rikers Island in pre-landfill state as four dry ground areas surrounded by marshes.

2 Troys, 1000s of Bells
For more than a century and a quarter, beginning in 1826, members and associates of the Meneely family made NY’s Troy/West Troy region – opposite sides of the Hudson -- a major center for bell-making in America.

Literally hundreds of thousands of bells still in use or on display in America are of Meneely manufacture.

Born May 19, 1802 in Gibbonsville (that later became West Troy), Andrew Meneely learned bell-casting there and in Auburn as an apprentice in the shop of Julius Hanks.

Andrew married into the Hanks family and eventually took over the Gibbonsville manufacturing facilities that had belonged to the Hanks.

Andrew had three sons who went into the bell-casting business, but not together nor at the same time.

When their father died, sons Edwin and George continued the business in West Troy.

But after the Civil War their younger brother, Clinton H., who had no share in their firm, set up his own shop across the river in Troy. He incorporated the family name as part of his own company’s name. He opened a sales office at 177 Broadway, Lower Manhattan.


One of Clinton H. Meneely bell-making company ads.
Courtesy of Dan Meneely's Meneely Bell On-Line Museum web site.

The West Troy Meneelys sued, claiming trade name infringement by their brother in Troy.

In 1875, a precedent-setting decision was handed down by the state’s highest court.

The ruling upheld a person’s legal right to use one’s own name commercially, even if the same name was in use by another firm.

The Meneelys of West Troy had good reason to want to avoid confusion of identities.

Their long-established company had gained national attention with its “solution” to the problem of the Liberty Bell cracking despite repairs and recasting.

George R. Meneely’s improvements in the way a bell could be attached to its yoke permitted a bell to be rotated, thus preventing the clapper from always striking the bell in the same place. On July 28, 1868, he secured a patent for the improvements.


Liberty Bell. Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, PA, 1976-2003. In October 2003 the Liberty Bell was relocated into a new state-of-the-art facility called The Liberty Bell Center.
Courtesy, Independence National Historical Park.
But it was the bell-making firm of his brother and rival, across the river in Troy, which was chosen to cast Liberty Bell’s replacement in Independence Hall tower to celebrate in 1876 the nation’s centennial.

Clinton’s Meneely Bell Company of Troy also was chosen to cast the Liberty Bell replica for the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

Ferry History Site: Tombs
New York and Brooklyn are distinguished as separate entities in the name of the business for which the bell now on Rikers had been cast in 1899 by Clinton H. Meneely’s firm in Troy. That distinction reflects the fact that the Union Ferry Company began long before Brooklyn became part of NYC in 1898.

Indeed, Union Ferry had origins that preceded the emergence of Brooklyn as a major 19th Century U.S. city – origins that contributed to the emergence. They trace back to early development of steam power for boats, a history that includes late 18th Century experiments on Lower Manhattan’s Collect pond, the site – after landfill – of the first Tombs prison, aka Halls of Justice, built in the late 1830s.


In the above detail, the Collect Pond, with its bogs and stream are superimposed over a street map depicting the location of the Halls of Justice aka Tombs.
Courtesy of RK Chin's Journey Through Chinatown web site.

The inventively brilliant but emotionally erratic John Fitch is reported have run trials with his screw-propeller steamboat on the Collect in the 1790s. During some of those trial trips Fitch’s guest passengers were said to have included Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston.

A few years later in Paris, the two Roberts – future Hudson River ferry service partners -- experimented with steam-powered boating on the River Seine. While in Europe, Robert Fulton also met Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont who aided the inventor in establishing the Fulton Ferry and who became one of its directors until his death in 1838.

Hezekiah was a member of the Committee of Fifteen that secured in 1816 a village charter for the community known as Brooklyn which had developed near the ferry landing, later called Fulton Ferry. He served as village trustee and played a major role in street mapping and land use along the Brooklyn waterfront facing Manhattan.


A detail from an 1876 fresco in the U.S. Capitol depicts inventor John Fitch, who tested his screw propeller steamboat on Collect Post, at work on a ferry model.
Courtesy of the Architect of the U.S. Capitol web site.

Six years after Hezekiah’s death, his younger son, Henry E. Pierrepont, and Jacob R. Leroy "united" five existing Brooklyn ferry lines into the Union Ferry Company, virtually monopolizing NY-Brooklyn transportation prior to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.

As his father had a big hand in founding the Village of Brooklyn and in the layout of its streets, son Henry had a big hand in the village becoming a city and in the designing its development. Indeed, he is regarded as one of America’s earliest urban planners.

Henry E.’s extensive papers relating to ferry and other business matters, his Historical Sketch of the Futon Ferry and his involvement in cultural and civic affairs, including Brooklyn Hospital, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Green-Wood Cemetery and the Brooklyn Historical Society, are held by that society at 128 Pierrepont St.

Bridges Blossom, Ferries Fade
As more bridges spanned the East River -- the Brooklyn, the Williamsburg, the Manhattan, the Queensboro – the number of NY-Brooklyn ferry lines decreased.


Union Ferry founder Henry E. Pierrepont/

Union Ferry was particularly hard hit by the opening of the Brooklyn and Williamsburg spans.

By 1906, only two of its seven ferry routes managed to avoid operating in the red.

By 1908, the company planned terminating the five failing routes permanently but city administrations were able to delay the inevitable for a while through various legal maneuvers.

Circa 1922 the city’s Marine and Aviation Department took over Union Ferry routes, along with those of other lines.

The takeovers, perhaps done partly in response to political pressures for continuance of some ferry service, were justified as necessary to alleviate overloading on the bridges.


Red arrow, added to detail from 1909 Manhattan map, points to Union Ferry Co. terminal, at Whitehall and South Streets, next to the larger terminal for Municipal Ferry to South Brooklyn.
Courtesy of Peter Kastner's Community Heritage Maps web site.
About the same time as the Marine and Aviation takeover of the private ferry lines, that municipal agency also took over the ferrying of Correction staff, inmates, equipment and supplies that DOC’s own tiny fleet had previously preformed.

Steamboat operations of DOC and its ancestral agencies – the Almshouse Department and the Department of Public Charities and Correction – dated at least as far back as 1828 when, with acquisition of Blackwell’s Island (later named Welfare island and now Roosevelt Island), NYC began placing on nearby islands various correctional, charitable and health-related institutions.

Indeed, the argument can be made that the relative reliability of steamboat transport made feasible the placement and operation of those institutions on islands.

DOC’s 1922 ‘Fleet’ Report – Its last
The last DOC annual report to list among its operational and administrative divisions a “Bureau of Steamboats” was submitted to Mayor John F. Hylan by Commissioner James A. Hamilton for the year ended Dec. 31, 1922.


1922 DOC annual report front cover.
Pages 65 and 66 identify four steamers, the 778-ton steamer Correction, the 85-ton Riker’s Island, the 66-ton Hart’s Island, and the James A. Hamilton, tonnage not given, and two launches, the Whitney and the B. G. L.

The steamer Correction provided passenger and freight service daily except Sundays between East 26th St., Manhattan, and Welfare, Rikers and Hart Islands. The total cost of its 235 days of service was figured at $55,805. The biggest chunk of its daily average operating cost of $237 went to salaries and wages: $151.

Correction was reported to have transported a total of 56,738 passengers, of whom 4,794 were inmates.

The passengers transported figures were year-end totals. Daily averages were not given. To place the Correction and other DOC boat passengers transported statistics into some perspective, consider that the combined average daily inmate population on the islands serviced by the steamer – Welfare, Rikers and Hart – was little more than 2,000.


The Hart's Island.
Courtesy of Trevor Gherardi's SIFerry.Com web site.
The steamer Hart’s Island was described as a “reserve boat” that “operated on alternate service” with Riker’s Island, providing passenger service daily between City Island and Hart Island and was occasionally loaned to the Department of Welfare.

Nevertheless this “reserve boat” put in 274 days of service – 47 more than the Riker’s Island and 39 more than the Correction.

The Hart’s Island’s 34,443 passengers total included no inmates. Its year-long operating cost was put at $28,765. Salary and wages accounted for $94 of its $105 daily average operating cost.

The steamer Riker’s Island also provided passenger service between City and Hart Islands but included 1,678 inmates among its 17,226 passengers transported during the calendar year. The $3,285 year operating total cost averaged out to about $16.50. But since labor costs were not included, the value of those figures appears questionable.


"All day water trip for mothers and children" reads the banner of the "Mayor's Committee of Women" displayed on the side of the steamer Correction. Image from 1920 DOC annual report.
The steamer James A. Hamilton’s 78 days of service transporting 7,715 passengers cost $10,813 total. That averaged out to about $139 per day of service with the bulk of that being repairs and replacements: $110. Precisely where the Hamilton’s passengers were transported from or to is not mentioned.

The launch Whitney, named in honor of Patrick A. Whitney who served as DOC’s 6th Commissioner (1/19/10 - 12/31/13), provided a ferry service between Rikers Island and the “landing float for passengers and employees” at the foot of 134th Street in the Bronx.

Although the Whitney was reported to have transported 15,189 in its 181 days of service during the year, its operating cost total -- $3,285 -- was nearly as much as the steamer Riker’s Island that transported 17,226 passengers in 227 operating days.

Comparing the launch Whitney’s average daily operating cost of $18 to that of the steamer Riker’s Island daily average $16.50 is pointless, since the streamer provides nothing in the labor category to match against the launch’s daily salary and wages cost of $15.


Officials wait on wounded soldiers on board Correction. Image from 1920 DOC annual report.
The cost statistics are further rendered suspect by those stated for the launch identified as B. G. L.. Named for Burdette G. Lewis, DOC’s 8th Commissioner (12/27/15 -- 12/31/17), it was described in the main text as “a small launch . . . repaired and kept in commission.”

Yet B. G. L. reportedly operated 179 days and transported 12,625 passengers at a total cost of only $222.49. But no labor cost is given. The daily average cost for “repair and replacement” was put at 7 cents. Multiplied by 179 days, that means the repairs mentioned in connection with keeping it “in commission” cost $12.53. Even in 1922 dollars that seems hardly worth main text attention being called to it.

Interestingly the James A. Hamilton goes unmentioned in the main text and appears only in the statistical tables. There the data says its “repairs and replacement” costs averaged to $110.07 each of its 78 days of service: that is, $8,585.46 total for the year.


Band plays, children dance, flags flap in the breeze, as the steamer Correction plows New York waters on a WWI era excursion. Image from 1920 DOC annual report.
Consider: No main text mention is made of the steamer named for the Commissioner that runs up repairs which basic math shows cost more than 660 times the paltry sum for the launch repair mentioned in main text.

Curious, to say the least; especially so since Commissioner Hamilton was much taken with his department's steamboat excursions. In the same 1922 annual report, the 1918 and 1919 Correction excursions supportive of WWI wounded soldiers and their families take up a page and a half of a four-page section entitled Accomplishments of Commission Hamilton's Administration.

Obviously the 1922 Bureau of Steamboats stats should not be read as examples of good accounting practices. They are cited here because, despite glaring gaps and odd omissions, they do provide some perspective, however partial, on the operation of the tiny transport fleet on the eve of its end in DOC history.

The following year’s departmental report submitted to Mayor Hylan Dec. 31, 1923, by Hamilton’s successor as commissioner, Frederick A. Wallis (1/l/23 -- 8/14/27), makes no mention of any DOC boats, steamer or launch. Nor did any of his subsequent annual reports. The days of DOC running its own ferries were over.

A Plausible Scenario
Union Ferry’s Meneely-manufactured bell likely became NYC’s Marine and Aviation Department property when that municipal agency took over the private company’s lines.


Before its current location, the bell was positioned at the Rikers Island end of the bridge in the vicinity of where the brick wall proclaims the span's name.
The bell then would have made its way to Rikers Island after Marine and Aviation took over ferry service to Correction’s island bases that previously had been performed by DOC’s own fleet.

The 1966 opening of Rikers – via a 5,500-foot bridge -- to an almost continuous stream of cars, trucks and buses ended ferry service to the island and sped up its full development as a multi-jail complex.

As the passenger and freight transport ferries departed from the Rikers for good, they and their agency, whether by happenstance or by deliberate intent, likely left behind the bell. It now stands a long and silent watch in mute but very visible reminder of the bygone era when the East River boats and their crews served the bridge-less island.

The visibility aspect seems a factor to weigh in deciding whether to include in our plausible scenario that the purpose of the bell being formally given to Rikers or informally "left behind" (wink, wink) was to have it displayed for commemorative effect. If simply left behind by actual Marine and Aviation Department oversight, perhaps as a long forgotten piece of old unused equipment, would the bell have been so immediately and prominently displayed for as long as anyone appears able to remember?

Retired Chief of Department Marron Hopkins recalls, "My history with the Department dates back to April of 1969. The majority of my career was spent on Rikers. I don't remember anytime during my 25 year tenure that the bell was not on the Island and visible for all to see . . ."

When the Department originally placed the bell on display between two cannon replicas on a lawn near the Rikers end of the bridge, DOC apparently had in mind taking historical note of ferry service being ended by the bridge. Why else position the bell at such a high visibility location, the one spot everyone coming onto the island from the bridge would have opportunity to view it?


The bell assembly and its red-brick rectangular platform are centered on a red-brick circular walk across from the TEAMS trailer (background).
Photographer Tom O'Connor image for NYCHS.
The bell display was situated in the vicinity of where in 1987 DOC erected a small decorative brick wall with large letters and the plaque dedicating the span as the Francis R. Buono Memorial Bridge in honor of that Rikers Island supervising warden. Interestingly, Buono was well known for his keen appreication of things nautical.

From communications among retired Chiefs Sheila Vaughan and James Garvey and Warden Gregory McLoughlin emerge recollections, relayed by veteran civilian employee Maureen Serge, that Warden Buono had been involved with the Naval Reserves and that perhaps he had been a prime mover in DOC acquiring and displaying the bell. Apparently, he made sure that inmates regularly polished it.

Correction Academy Deputy Warden In Charge Peter Panagi recalls the bell being moved in the late 1980s from its former location near the bridge to its present location. He recalls the current rectangular red-brick platform and circular walk being created for it. Retired Captain Ellen Murphy remembers being at the cermoney connected with the bell being moved to the current location, but she cannot pin down the year.

How had the bell been used during its “active duty” at Rikers?

Former Correction Commissioner Jacqueline McMickens (1/18/1984 – 9/22/ 1986), who joined DOC as a Correction Officer in the days that ferries still ran to and from Rikers. recalls a large bell was stationed at the island’s ferry slip. She remembers it would be rung to help guide in-coming boats approaching under heavy fog and other poor visibility conditions.


Beyond the bell rim and wooden supports in the foreground can be seen East River waters, a passing barge and the blue and white stationary jail barge, the Vernon C. Bain Center, moored in the Hunts Point vicinity of the Bronx mainland.
Photographer Tom O'Connor image for NYCHS.
In providing a vivid description of steamship crossings to and from Manhattan when 26 ferry lines operated on Hudson River and East River waters, the important role played by slip- stationed bells was noted by James D. McCabe Jr., in Chapter XXIV "The Ferries" of his classic 1882 New York By Sunlight and Gaslight (published in 1984 as New York By Gaslight by Greenwich House, division of Arlington House):

The passage of the rivers is made quickly and without difficulty in fair weather, but when the rivers are filled with floating ice, or shrouded in heavy fogs, one or more hours are sometimes consumed in a trip which usually requires but a few minutes.

During a fog the trip is exciting beyond description. The dense mist hides the entire river and the opposite shores from view, and the pilots must trust to their compasses for the accuracy of their course on such occasions. On every hand is heard the hoarse whistle of steamers in the river, and the tolling of the bells at the landings on the shore. . . ."

On-shore fog bells had distinct ring patterns or sequences so mariners could tell the sounds of one from another.


North Brother Island's former lighthouse fog bell has a place of honor as part of the P.O. Kenneth M. Hansen Memorial at the NYPD Harbor Unit's Harbor George base in College Point.
Courtesy ret. Lt. Carol Grace-Walker & Bent Wheel Club, the unit's retirement club website.
Not just ferry landings, but lighthouses also used bells to provide mariners an audible location reference when fog or other low-visibility conditions prevailed. But increasing advances in transportation on land and across water led to decreasing dependence on ferries, lighthouses and their visual and audio guidance devices. After big "fog bells" became obsolete as navigation aides, some of them took on roles as historical artifacts.

An 1896 fog bell -- used at the Portsmouth, N.H., Harbor lighthouse until replaced by a horn in 1972 -- is on display in front of the Coast Guard station. Likeswise the Half Moon Reef Lighthouse -- moved from its previous water perch off the Texas Gulf Coast to a land site alongside Texas Highway 35 at Port Lavaca -- displays fog bells near its front entrance.

On the San Francisco's Vista Pier is displayed a 1,600-pound bell that in earlier eras had been atop a pier shed across from the Embarcadero Center and had served as an audible beacon in times of fog. Now it's a tourist attraction.

The 1833 Old Stone Lighthouse -- Buffalo's oldest building still standing on its original site -- displays on its grounds a "1933 U.S. Light House Service Fog Bell." In Hudson, N.Y., a preservation society acquired and completely restored as an active aide to river navigation the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse including one of the last working fog bell ringing mechanisms in the U.S.

Closer to Rikers than the above mentioned fog bells is the one from North Brother Island that NYPD's Harbor Unit has given a new home and new mission in College Point. That island, where NYC set up a contagious diseases hospital in 1885, is perhaps best known as the quarantine home for “Typhoid Mary” Mallon a total of 26 years until her death in 1938 and as the spot where the burning steamer General Slocum went aground in 1904. Hospital staffers saved many passengers but still more than 1000 died in that worst NYC accident.


P. O. Kenneth Hansen memorial plaque beneath rim of former North Brother Island lighthouse fog bell at NYPD Harbor Unit's Harbor George base in College Point.
Courtesy ret. Lt. Carol Grace-Walker & Bent Wheel Club, the unit's retirement club website.
Less well known is the island's past role as a lighthouse station, beginning in 1869 when it was established to aid navigation through Hell’s Gate.

In 1953, the lighthouse was decommissioned. An automatic light was installed on the nearby fog bell tower. The light was eventually replaced by a buoy near the island. The hospital closed in the 1960s.

On June 11, 1992, the fog bell from North Brothers Island -- devotedly refurbished, its U.S. Light House Service letters and date, USLHS 1923, clearly visible in sans serif -- was featured in ceremonies at NYPD Harbor Unit's College Point base honoring the memory of one of Harbor Unit's own: Kenneth M. Hansen. He had died in a freak accident during a Sea-Air-Rescue demonstration/training exercise off of the Battery in New York Harbor.

'Don't-Miss-the-Boat' Bell Alert
Besides its "fog duty," the Rikers bell apparently rendered "don't miss the boat" service as well. Some DOCers whose tenure included the closing years of Rikers ferry transport remember a large bell would also be rung to alert island staffers interested in catching a ride aboard a ferry whose departure was imminent. Hearing the bell ring, they would hurry down to the ferry slip.

Retired Bureau Chief Arnett "Pat' Gaston recalls. "I remember taking the ferry in the early 1960s. They rang the bell to let everyone know the ferry was leaving the dock."

Whether the ferry slip large bell of those recollections is the bell on display or whether the displayed bell came off one of the last boats servicing Rikers remains a question.

The Rikers bell measures about 33 inches in diameter across its rim and about 28 inches from the rim to the top, dimensions that seem rather large for an on-board-boat ferry bell. One NYC ferry and maritime historian told NYCHS, "The size would perhaps indicate that it was used at the slip. I have seen such bells at other slips in the city including the Staten Island Ferry."


Now gone from Rikers: the two ex-S.I. ferries that had been used as inmate dorms to relieve overcrowding.
The most plausible scenario would perhaps be that it had been stationed at the Rikers Island ferry slip to provide an audible guide for in-coming boats when visibility was poor as well as to sound an alert to those staff wanting transport off the island.

But more research on that point is needed.

The possibility that the bell came from either of the two ex-ferries moored at the Rikers ferry slip as floating reserve inmate housing must be discounted.

Veteran DOCers as well as retired and former DOCers recall the Rikers bell well before the 1987 arrival on Correction’s main island of the last two Staten Island steam ferries. They were “retired” to Rikers to serve as stationary floating 162-bed dorms for inmates to relieve overcrowding.


Beautifully curved supports frame Rikers Island bell that seems almost wedged between them.
Photographer Tom O'Connor image for NYCHS.
As jail population eased in the early 2000s, the ferries' use as reserve dorms declined. Then they were used for DOC offices, inmate programs, and services, but eventually were sold off by NYC and dismantled for scrap.

Rikers Construction Workers Ferry Disaster
Also to be discounted is any connection between the bell and the Sept. 9, 1932 explosion disaster involving the steamboat Observation. A private craft owned by a Capt. Forsythe under contract to the P. J. Carlin Construction Company, it was carrying laborers en route to Rikers to work on the then new penitentiary being built to replace the old one on Welfare Island.

The boat reportedly had just left the pier at the foot of East 134th street, the Bronx, when the early morning blast blew the boat apart. Seventy-one of the more than 100 workmen aboard were killed.

The fact that the Rikers bell originated with the Union Ferry Co. taken over by the city Marine and Aviation Department that also took over Rikers passenger and freight ferry service would argue against connecting it to Capt. Forsyte’s Observation.


The Rikers Island bell beneath darkening clouds and a furiously flapping flag near the Telcom building.
Photographer Tom O'Connor image for NYCHS.
The lack of any memorial plaque to connect the bell to that tragedy also mitigates against a connection. Had there been one at the bell’s bridge display, such a memorial plaque would have likely been moved with the bell to its present location and remounted there.

Nevertheless, recalling the 71 Rikers Penitentiary construction workers killed in the steamboat disaster of 73 years ago serves as a reminder that steamboat service so crucial to Rikers for so long was not without its hazards.

Those 71 lost Rikers laborers would seem worthy of inclusion in any answer to the question of For Whom Did Rikers Island Bell Toll, at least within the meaning of the 17th Century poet John Donne’s Meditation XVII:

No man is an island . . . every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

To: NYCHS home page.
To NYC DOC history menu page.

Rikers Island bell images on this web page are by photographer Tom O'Connor for NYCHS. All rights thereto are retained and reserved by both. Except the John Donne quote, all text on this page is by Thomas McCarthy for NYCHS. All rights thereto are retained and reserved by both. With appropriate source credit, non-commerical educational use of text and Rikers bell images permitted.

The images of the 1920 DOC annual report cover, of the steamer Correction WWI era excursions, of the two ex-S.I. ferries/ex-dorms, and of the Buono Bridge brick wall are from NYC DOC photos. All rights reserved. Contact NYCHS webmaster concerning possible use.

Any copyrights associated with the images sources cited below are retained by them:

The Liberty Bell image derives from one that can be found on the web site of the National Park Service Museum Collections.

The circa 1880 Meneely Bell. Co. ad image can be found at the Meneely Bell On-Line Museum web site as well as a wealth of Meneely bell history.

The Collect Pond map detail image derives from a larger map image found on the R. K. Chin's Journey Through Chinatown web site along with other excellent information on the area.

The James Fitch detail is derived from a larger image on the web site of the Architect of the U.S. Capitol.

The Henry E. Pierrepont image is derived from one on the second page of a 4-page PDF file on the web site of Green-Wood Cemetery.

The Union Ferry terminal detail derives from a much larger image of a map in the 1909 Bromley Atlas of Manhattan that appears on Peter Kastner's Community Heritage Maps web site.

The image of the steamer Hart's Island is derived from one among ferry photos on Trevor Gherardi's SIFerry.Com web site.

The images of the North Brother Island "fog bell" memorial at the NYPD Harbor Unit Harbor George base are derived from ret. Lt. Carol Grace-Walker's photos on the unit's retirement club websiteThe Bent Wheel Club.

of the Steamboat

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NYCHS: Dedicate
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