How steam clock symbolizes the saving of Gastown

Let's celebrate the 40th anniversary of this famous tourist draw – and how it marks the rescue of freeway-threatened neighbourhoods

 

Wow, you look really old for your age.

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That’s a compliment if you happen to be the Gastown Steam Clock. Built to appear like it’s from the 1880s, the iconic Vancouver fixture is in fact just 40 years old this month.

The clock was officially unveiled on Sept. 24, 1977. Like its surprisingly young age, there are many aspects of the clock’s history that are either unknown or misunderstood.

For instance, besides being one of the world’s only steam-powered clocks – assisted by three electric motors – it should also serve as a reminder of a time when Gastown narrowly avoided the wrecking ball.

In the late 1960s, super freeways and inner-city highways were becoming increasing popular in North American cities, many of which had highways running along their waterfront. Vancouver’s mayor at the time, “Terrific” Tom Campbell, loved that idea for Vancouver and plans were hatched to link the Trans-Canada Highway to a third crossing from downtown to the North Shore. The freeway would steamroll right through the low-rent districts of Strathcona, Chinatown and Gastown.

The business associations and community groups in those neighbourhoods pushed back and, somewhat miraculously, plans for the highway link were cancelled. Instead, money was eventually re-allocated into a Gastown restoration project, since the area had fallen on hard times.

 

Jon Ellis was the city planner for Gastown in the 1970s. It was his idea for a type of town-square clock to bring in the tourists. He hired notable Vancouver horologist Raymond Saunders to build it.

“I’m very proud of it now, but making that clock was one of the biggest struggles of my entire life,” Saunders told me with a sigh, when I reached him at his home in Richmond.

“Jon wanted something special to mask the steam vent on the sidewalk at the corner of Water Street and Cambie. Instead of the cement blocks that were used in other parts of the city, he suggested a kind of giant grandfather clock,” Saunders remembers. “I wanted to harness the steam to work the clock. We were too naïve to know it couldn’t be done, but somehow we did it.”

Saunders received an initial budget of $25,000, but was shocked when the price tag for the bronze casing alone came in at $22,000. More money was raised by Gastown businesses and property owners, but as construction of the elaborate five-metre-high clock continued, to get the job done, Saunders was personally forced into the red to the tune of an addition $22,000.

In the end, the Gastown Steam Clock cost $58,000 to complete.

“Sept. 24, 1977, was a very emotional day,” recalled Saunders. “We had to work right through the night to get the clock ready for the big reveal at noon. It rained all morning, so we had it covered with a tarp, but because of the steam it was also raining inside the tarp.”

At 11 a.m., with Saunders still feverishly working on the clock, a brass band started up and a parade marched down Water Street. Politicians started making speeches at Water and Cambie.

“When I emerged from the clock I was an emotional wreck, but there was my six-year-old daughter, Marion,” Saunders told me. “She looked up and said, ‘Daddy, you did such a good job!’ I really lost it then.”

At 11:30 a.m., Saunders rushed over to his office to drop off his tools and change into his suit. He made it back just in time to gather with the politicians and neighbourhood leaders for the unveiling.

At exactly noon, Saunders pushed the button to sound off the chimes for the very first time. Silence.

To his horror, Saunders remembered that he had shut off an electrical breaker while working on the clock, but the wrench to fix it was at his office. The politicians went back to making speeches as he dashed back to his office. Half an hour later and drenched in sweat, Saunders pushed the button again. The Gastown Steam Clock sounded off the Westminster Quarters chimes for the first time.

News of Saunders’ personal loss leaked, and an anonymous contributor stepped up with a cheque covering the entire $22,000.

0914 SHAKEDOWN steam clock
The only thing more certain than the chimes of the clock is the gaggle of photo-snapping tourists that gather beside the landmark. Grant Lawrence photo

 

Ultimately, Jon Ellis’s plan worked. To this day, tourists gather all day long to see and hear that venerable steam clock in action, and Saunders has gone on to construct similar clocks all over the world.

Saunders’ only regret is that there seemingly isn’t a 40th birthday party for Vancouver’s timeless timepiece. Both the Gastown Business Improvement Society and a representative from the city confirmed that nothing is scheduled.

That’s not good enough for Ray Saunders. “That clock has proven to be so popular it deserves a party, right at 12 noon on Sunday, Sept. 24. I’ll even wear my 1890s tuxedo and top hat.”

You’d think it’d only be right to have some sort of celebration. Besides always reminding us of the time, the clock also stands as a sentinel for the salvation of one of Canada’s most storied neighbourhoods.

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