SEATTLE — In 1936, a San Francisco police-boat captain gave a young boy a bronze bell engraved with “Adventuress 1913.”
Ten-year-old Nick Lemos didn’t know it, but the gift was a bribe. He was given the bell to keep his grandmother’s affair with the captain a secret.
Lemos, 87, held on to the bell ever since. He didn’t know what had become of the Maine-built schooner – that it had been classified as a National Historic Landmark and was now part of an environmental-education program for kids.
This spring, the San Francisco family did a quick online search and found Adventuress was still sailing – on Puget Sound.
“I think I have your bell,” is the message Lemos left on the voice mail of Sound Experience, the nonprofit that owns the vessel.
Catherine Collins, executive director of Sound Experience, said no one knew Adventuress’ original bell was missing until her organization got the call from Lemos.
“We get to hear and touch a bell people heard a hundred years ago,” she said.
Adventuress was launched in 1913 in East Boothbay, Maine, for Arctic voyages with the American Museum of Natural History, and later used by the San Francisco Bar Pilots as a guide boat for ships maneuvering their way through treacherous waters near the Golden Gate Bridge.
The bell has been with Lemos throughout his life.
It stayed with him when he was drafted into the Navy during World War II. It followed him through his multiple homes in California, and it once was buried deep in mud for six months after a terrible storm.
During a recent family argument over cleaning the bell with household chemicals and whether the artifact could be significant, Lemos’ sons decided to Google it.
Mike Lemos, 64, stopped his father right before he could wipe away more than a hundred years of history.
“I didn’t know what it was worth, but I knew the value was in the age,” Mike Lemos said.
On all sides, the 15-pound bronze bell is covered with a bluish-green patina.
Lemos joked that he didn’t mean to have it for so long. He said whenever he was looking for something else he would run into the bell.
“It’s just something you hold on to, like an old pair of shoes you like,” he said.
Collins said that when she first heard Lemos’ story, “the hairs on the back of my neck” went up.
It’s believed that the bell went missing in 1915 after the San Francisco Bar Pilots were installing an auxiliary engine and a fire broke out. To save the vessel, the bar pilots sunk Adventuress.
During its restoration, the bell somehow landed in the captain’s hands.
Lemos, who is retired from his bookbinding business, kept the bell on the back porch of his vacation home in Clearlake, Calif.
The family would ring the bell to call everyone in for cocktails.
Collins drove down to San Francisco to retrieve the bell, and once she laid eyes on it, she cried.
“I was so moved in knowing that something was going to come back to our community that was tremendously meaningful, that told our history and that told our story,” she said.
Mike Lemos said as soon as he saw Collins, he knew they couldn’t keep it.
“The value was in the memories they had for the bell,” he said.
Sound Experience invested about $1.2?million in Adventuress.
“The bell is a symbol of the boat,” said Roger Ottenbach, owner of Cuttysark Nautical Antiques in Seattle. “The few we have are real treasures.”
Few wooden ships from that era remain in operable condition, he said. Most are either wrecked or their wood is rotted from sea worms.
“What am I going to do with a bell?” Lemos said. “It should be up there with the boat, that’s where it really belongs.”