A bronze bell from the S.S. Queen Victoria is one of the few artifacts salvaged from the steamship which sank off the coast of North Carolina, two years after the vessel ferried the Fathers of Confederation to the Charlottetown Conference in 1864.
The artifact described as "Canada's version of the Liberty Bell" will be on display in the national capital region at the Canadian Museum of History for 15 months beginning this November, part of an exhibit to mark the 150th anniversary of the events leading up to Confederation in 1867.
"The ship was a site of nation building and it's one that Canadians don't know very well," said the exhibit’s curator Jean-Francois Lozier.
The Queen Victoria transported John A. MacDonald, George Brown and George Etienne Cartier and other members of the Canada delegation to Charlottetown on Aug. 31, 1864. The ship served as the de facto headquarters for the statesmen, who represented what is now modern-day Ontario and Quebec.
The vessel was also famously the site of a champagne-soaked luncheon where the Canadian delegates and leaders from the Maritimes hammered out the plan to unite the British North America colonies and create a nation that would later become Canada.
The return of the ship bell is a homecoming that is 150 years in the making, but it might not have happened were it not for one American with an affinity for Canada.
Since 1875, the ship's bell has been the cherished possession of Gouldsboro, an isolated peninsular fishing village in Maine. It's a symbol of maritime courage for the villagers whose ancestors served on board the Ponvert, a Maine-based vessel that helped rescue 41 Canadian crew members of the Queen Victoria.
In gratitude, the captain of the Queen Victoria, Paul Pouilot of Quebec City, presented the bell to the skipper of the Ponvert, Rufus Allen, who later donated it to the Gouldsboro District School Board.
When the Museum of History contacted the village council last winter about the possibility of borrowing the bell for the upcoming exhibit, Loizer said he was surprised by the initial resistance to the idea.
"They feared that either the museum might confiscate the bell or the Canadian government may confiscate the bell."
One incident in particular came up again and again as evidence of Canada's ill intent.
According to local memory, in the mid-60s an army helicopter landed in the parking lot of the women's club where the bell was being stored: a group of RCMP officers had been sent to strongarm residents into giving it up.
Another iteration of the tale recasts government agents disguised as insurance agents to appraise the bell.
"Perhaps at some point some Canadians came by helicopter and there may have been joking around but [that version] seems too bizarre to be true," said Lozier. "In the end we're extremely happy, we're extremely fortunate that good sense prevailed."
Gouldsboro historians say there have been several documented attempts by Canadians to retrieve the bell, the first by a group of researchers preparing for the Canada's centenary in 1967.
However the museum found a champion for its cause in Roger Bowen, a former university president and a current village council member, who sold Gouldsboro on the idea of loaning the bell.
'The people of Goldsboro have long harboured suspicions that Canadians might one day steal the bell," Bowen said.
However after much lobbying Bowen was able to persuade most people in the village that they had to do their part to help the Canadian celebrations.
"I think that if a museum dedicated to Canadian history was to do a major exhibit on the founding of a nation.. and this little community can help and participate, I think we ought to."
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