Before Under Armour, before Black & Decker, before London Fog, Crown Cork & Seal, Stieff Silver, National Bohemian, and even Bethlehem Steel, there was another Baltimore-based manufacturing behemoth that took the world by storm. But unlike those aforementioned name brands, you’ve probably never heard of this company, even if you can literally hear the fruits of its labor every hour, on the hour, throughout the region.
Founded in 1856, McShane Bell Foundry was, for a time, one of Baltimore’s biggest, busiest enterprises, employing hundreds of craftsmen to cast thousands of bells, chimes, and peals for churches, schools, firehouses, boats, and private residences from coast to coast and around the world. In fact, by 1873, the company’s success was so integral to Baltimore’s emerging industrial dominance that writer George Washington Howard devoted a whole passage to it in his boosterish treatise, The Monumental City: Its Past History and Present Resources:
“[McShane’s founders] have not only the satisfaction which arises from individual success, but also of having built up an establishment which is of immense importance to Baltimore and is heralding throughout the world its name. They are literally ringing the bells which call attention to us from near and afar, inviting the world ‘to come to us and buy.’”
And though bells no longer enjoy the ubiquity they once did, McShane is still forging ahead as America’s longest-running bell manufacturer, having outlasted not just other bell foundries, but economic colossi from other industries, too. That’s right: Unlike Bethlehem Steel and Stieff Silver, McShane is still in business. And unlike London Fog, Crown Cork & Seal, and National Bohemian, McShane is still in business here, using antique equipment and original formulas to cast its massive musical instruments in a warehouse in Glen Burnie.
“It’s a great thing that we’ve lasted all these years,” says William R. Parker III, who co-owns the business with his father, William R. Parker Jr. “We’ve . . . had hard times, quite a few of them, but we seem to keep going.”
These days, Parker III says there’s plenty of work to keep the business’ staff of six busy. A glance around the cluttered Glen Burnie warehouse—which is anchored at one end by two looming steel furnaces and strewn with bells of all different sizes and patinas—seems to confirm this.
Parker III estimates that about 15 to 20 percent of the company’s revenue comes from casting new bells, mainly for churches. Fifty to 60 percent comes from refurbishing old bells—like an 1891 bell that is getting spiffed up for St. Vincent de Paul in Buffalo, NY, or a 300-pounder that was recently recovered from a historic property being restored for Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. To round out the portfolio, McShane installs electric ringing systems, designs and builds steel bell towers, and provides general maintenance services.
Because prices for new bells can reach the low six figures, it is not lost on Parker III that, had McShane made less durable bells, he could be a much richer man. But in a world of $1,000 iPhones designed to fail after three years, he’s proud to run a company that provides such lasting objects.
The process is messy enough to have warranted an appearance on a 2006 episode of Dirty Jobs.
“Unfortunately, our products are lifelong,” he deadpans. “They’re fine musical instruments, like a cello or a violin. As long as it’s properly taken care of and maintained, they’ll play for generations, lifetimes.”
Henry McShane was a teenage lad from County Louth, Ireland, when he immigrated to Baltimore in 1847. He found employment in a brass factory and took a shine to the work. Nine years later, he struck out on his own, opening the original McShane Bell Foundry at Holliday and Centre Streets. Initially, the company made pipes and plumbing fixtures, in addition to bells. But soon its bells—with their graceful contours and clear ringing tones—overshadowed the company’s other output. In particular, the company became known for its peals (sets of seven or fewer bells) and its chimes (sets of eight or more bells).
By 1873, business was booming, so much so that McShane opened a second facility near where The Baltimore Sun building now sits on Guilford Avenue (then called North Street).
An illustration of the North Street complex from a company catalogue in 1900 gives some idea of the scale of the operation, which employed some 200 workers. The image shows several smoke-spewing chimneys puffing away while horse-drawn carriages, streetcars, and a train whiz by. Inside, the catalogue boasts that, “space will not permit of our giving full detail of all the chimes and peals we have made,” but does go on to list 15 pages worth of recently completed projects, including chimes in Key West, Chicago, Detroit, and Ontario, Canada, and peals in locations ranging from Boston to Buenos Aires and New Orleans to New York City.
Of course, among the far-flung locales are many Baltimore sites, too. Though not listed in the 1900 catalogue, the company’s most famous local bell is the “Lord Baltimore.” Cast in 1889, the 7,100-pound beauty still sits atop Baltimore’s City Hall and chimes on the hour. Other prominent McShane bells sound out from perches at Towson University, The Maryland State Boychoir, and The Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus.
Perhaps the company’s most high-profile success came in 1876, at a grand exhibition in Philadelphia to mark the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. There, the company set up and earned raves for its chime of 13 bells (representing the 13 original states), which played patriotic standards.
According to a write-up in The Philadelphia Commercial, “The thrilling notes of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ [and] the soul-stirring strain of ‘Yankee Doodle’ echoing through the vales and woodlands, the floral dells and sylvan groves . . . [caused] the multitudes assembled in Philadelphia’s famous Fairmount Park to pause, stand transfixed and mute, enraptured by the ‘Music of the Bells.’”
After a fire damaged part of the North Street foundry in 1893, McShane decided to move at least part of the company’s operations to an undeveloped plot along the Patapsco east of Baltimore. When the railroad followed the foundry out that way two years later, officials asked McShane to provide a name for the new depot. McShane’s son William James, then the company’s vice president, chose to honor his father’s Irish hometown, nailing a sign to a tree near the train station that read “Dundalk.”
“We found that [bells] somehow have their own language that seems to communicate when our words fail.”
Though the company helped establish modern-day Dundalk’s identity as a factory town—a McShane Way still runs north from Dundalk Avenue—it didn’t stay there long. The McShane family sold the business in 1900, and the last remaining segments of the Dundalk foundry were razed in 1981.
Because many records were destroyed in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, relatively little is known about the company in the early 20th century. The timeline becomes clear again in 1933, when a family by the name of McAleer sold the business to William R. Parker Sr.
“My grandfather, back in the 1930s, had a tool and die machine shop next to the bell foundry,” explains Parker III. “He was just fascinated by the bell business. . . . When [the McAleers] took ill, my grandfather stepped in and bought the business. It has been in my family ever since.”
In 1946, after yet another fire, Parker Sr. and his wife, Edith Meyers—who ran the front office—moved the foundry to a two-story structure on East Federal Street, near Penn Station. In 1965, Parker Sr.’s eldest son, William R. Parker Jr., joined the family business. And in 1979, after the company lost its lease on the Federal Street property, Parker Jr. moved the foundry to a warehouse in Glen Burnie “on a temporary basis,” figuring at least he’d be closer to the family home in nearby Pasadena.
For the Parker family, the move was the next logical progression in the gradual blurring of the lines between the personal and the professional. And while that may be a recipe for disaster in some families, Parker III values the closeness working with his father has fostered.
“I’d definitely recommend a family business,” he says. “I get to go to work every day with my dad, and that’s always been a strong point. A lot of families don’t have that.”
As with all family businesses, the question of succession looms large. Hints of mortality intruded last year when Parker Jr. was diagnosed with bladder cancer. (He is now in remission.)
“He’s recovering, thinking he’s coming back to work [full-time], but I think he’s going to come back on a limited basis, just answering the phones,” Parker III says with a knowing chuckle.
Already, Parker III’s 12-year-old son—who, incredibly, is not named William R. Parker IV—has expressed interest in carrying on the tradition.
“My son always talks about it,” he acknowledges. “But I don’t know. I didn’t set out to be in this business. It kind of called me. So it’s one of those things. You just have to wait and see.”
Though the story of McShane Bell Foundry is marked by near constant change, there has been one through line: an unflagging devotion to—and pride in—the company’s superior craftsmanship. This starts with Henry McShane’s original—and somewhat eccentric—bell-making recipe.
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“We got a lot of business from it,” notes Parker III. “And it still runs. Every once in a while, I’ll get an e-mail from someone saying, ‘Hey, I just saw you on Dirty Jobs!’”
Even without the help of TV, McShane’s bells continue to attract a loyal following, especially for their ability to bridge the sacred and the secular.
David Schlatter first encountered McShane Bell Foundry some 25 years ago, when he was working with an anti-death penalty group in Delaware.
“We were looking for a symbol, something that we could use during our vigils and our protests,” says Schlatter, a Franciscan friar who now works at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. “[The bells] would be driven around to rallies, and, more importantly, down on the grounds of the prison in Smyrna when there was an execution.”
Schlatter has since used McShane bells in memorial projects for victims of the 9/11 attacks and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
“Historically, bells have been signals,” he says. “There’s a whole spiritual dimension to them as well. Over the years . . . we found that they somehow have their own language that seems to communicate when our words fail. They seem to speak to a part of our heart that words cannot capture.”