Punch Williamson pulls a chain to ring a bell in St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Laramie in honor of the nation’s COVID-19 fatalities on Jan. 19. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Punch Williamson checked his watch. It was 3:33 p.m. on Jan. 19, and the bells in the highest-elevation cathedral in the contiguous United States were running late. 

The bells should have rung to mark the half hour. “I think the old guy is just running slow,” Williamson said. 

He would know. The British expat, who was born in Chile, has been maintaining and ringing the bells of St. Matthew Episcopalian Cathedral in Laramie since 1995. Now 80, his age does not keep him from scaling narrow metal ladders inside the 118-foot-tall clock tower.

Punch Williamson climbs a ladder toward a control room for the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral’s 11 century-old bells. At 80 years old, Williamson has little trouble climbing up and down ladders in the 118-feet high clock and bell tower. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

On Tuesday, Williamson made the climb for a particular reason. The Episcopal Diocese in Wyoming had invited each of its churches to heed a national call from President Joe Biden. The new president asked churches to ring their bells, Americans to put candles in their windows and cities to light their buildings in a moment of remembrance for the nation’s COVID-19 fatalities. 

Shortly after 3:34, Williamson pulled a chain to ring one of the church’s deeper timbred bells. He continued to pull the chain, and the bells tolled over Laramie for the next 400 seconds — a little over six minutes. 

The bells of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral, as viewed from below. The cathedral has eleven bells, that were shipped from Boston over a century ago. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Each second represented 1,000 Americans killed by the virus, Williamson said. The nation’s death toll surpassed 400,000 the day of the memorial. Williamson himself has lost friends and family to the disease, he said, not just here but in England and South Africa and elsewhere around the world. It was important to memorialize the dead, he said.

The original construction of St. Matthew’s Episcopalian Cathedral was completed in 1896. The church was built with sandstone quarried northeast of town, according to its website. At that time and for many years after, the church’s nave was the largest room in Laramie, Williamson said. The bells were purchased in Boston later, and the church’s clock tower was completed in 1916. 

Laramie banker and philanthropist Edward Ivinson paid for the project to memorialize the death of his wife Jane. 

Punch Williamson demonstrates the inner workings of the clock inside the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Laramie. The clock must be wound every eight days, Williamson said. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

The metal ladders pass by hanging bells of various sizes to the clock at the top of the tower. The bells are still those shipped west from Boston more than a century ago.

Someone must wind the clock every eight days with a metal crank handle more than a foot long. For more than two decades, that task has often rested on Williamson.  

From the clock room, Williamson can look out slit windows towards the Snowy Mountain Range to the west. He can look south over Laramie and its roughly 33,000 souls, east towards the Laramie Range and north to where town gives way to plains. 

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Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. I was born and raised in Laramie in 1949 when I was a Small child I Lived in a small rental on North third street next door to the Maverick cafe and across the street from the Highway that a lady named Velma ran.. We then moved to 213 Freemont where the Waffle House is now with my grandparents Henry and Ethel Rosser.. I would lay in bed Every single night and listen to those bells Chime ever 15 minutes and then on the hour they chimed the actual time.. The sound was so soothing to me as well as the numerous trains coming down the tracks a block and a half away.. my Grandparents sold the property to the Waffle House and my Grandfather retired and they moved to Golden Co. and then to Sheridan, Wy. When my Grandpa developed Cancer and my Grandma Parkinson’s and they moved up here with me till they passed and were buried back home in Golden Colorado. There are many nights when I can’t sleep and I remember those beautiful Bell Chimes in my mind along with the click-ity-clack of the wheels of the freights and passenger trains on those Tracks.. Penny Rosellen Bouse ( Jacobson) Registered Professional Nurse—
    Sheridan, Wyoming… Life long Wyoming Resident

  2. I enjoyed this article about St. Matthew’s Cathedral and the bells immensely! I was baptised, confirmed, and married there, my parents, Myrtle and Bertel Sundby were members where my mom taught Sunday school for quite some time and belonged to Daughters of the King. my Grandmother was originally Lutheran, but when it was time for her 5 children to attend Sunday school, she didn’t want them to have to cross the railroad tracks to the Lutheran church on the opposite side, so she sent them to St. Matthew’s, the upshot being that the entire family became Episcopalians, and still are, down to my own grandchildren. I love the photos of the inside of the bell tower and think it is wonderful that they are still being played for all kinds of occasions.

    Incidentally, I loved that Grace Raymond Hebard (NOT Hubbard), suffragist, writer, historian, and scholar climbed the tower and rang its largest bell in celebration of the adoption of the 19th Amendment! My grandmother on my father’s side, Anna Sundby, kept house for Dr. Hebard for several years.

    Keep up the good work, WyoFiles. My husband and I miss Wyoming, at least the Wyoming that used to be. Thanks for keeping us informed about what’s going on in the state, a great deal of which is pretty danged distressing. Praying that the current legislature will wake up, put on their masks, and fly right instead of jumping off a cliff to certain disaster while yelling “Wheee!” as one of your writers has so aptly reported.