Inside Vancouver’s Hidden Past – The Secret History of the Gastown Clock…

Photo courtesy of Alex Schwab

The following article was contributed by Will Woods as part of our Inside Vancouver’s Hidden Past series.

Being a tour guide I get all kinds of questions. Some are straight-forward (“What year was Vancouver incorporated?”), some are thought-provoking (“Is all the condo-building in Vancouver reducing or contributing to homelessness?”) and some are absurd (“Does Canada have its own money?”).

One of the questions I often get is “what is the story of the Gastown Steam Clock?”. A seemingly innocuous question you might say. Yet it’s never been a question I like answering.

Let’s get our facts on the table. First of all, while Gastown is old, the clock ain’t. Built in 1977, it’s not even reached middle age yet. Secondly, while it uses steam power, it also requires three (three!) electric motors. By my reckoning any device that requires three electric motors is stretching the definition of ‘steam-powered’ to its absolute limit. Thirdly, it is styled to look like a 19th century antique rather than representing any actual design aesthetic of the late 70’s – further draining it of authenticity.

As I led my tour groups through Gastown, it bugged me. Why is this clock here? Aren’t there more interesting sights and relics in the city that should be more celebrated than the Gastown Clock? Are we letting down our city’s visitors by drawing them to it?

So I decided to dig a little deeper…I decided there had to be something interesting about the clock. I started by stepping back in time, to Gastown-before-the-clock. 1967 to be precise.

Maple Tree Square, Gastown c.1967. CVA 447-340

In the late 60’s Gastown was a much edgier place than today. Many of the buildings were derelict or provided slum accommodation for low-income people. Gastown also hosted a burgeoning counter-culture movement as hippies were drawn to the area, attracted by its cheap rents and cheaper drugs.

Tom “Terrific” Campbell is sworn in as mayor, 1967. Courtesy Ken Oakes.

The mayor of the time was Tom “Terrific” Campbell. A strident pro-development mayor with an eye fixed firmly on the future. Campbell had bold plans for Vancouver. Protecting the city’s heritage buildings and its low-income Eastside communities was not in those plans. Working with urban planners, Tom developed a proposal to totally reconfigure Vancouver’s downtown. Swathes of Chinatown, Strathcona and historic Gastown were to be demolished to make way for a giant freeway.

Vancouver is notable amongst North American cities precisely because it does not have a freeway running through its centre. Cities including Toronto, Seattle and Chicago all have freeways running alongside their downtown waterfronts. Tom Campbell wanted a similar freeway system in Vancouver, including a third bridge from downtown to the North Shore. In fact right now The Museum of Vancouver has an excellent exhibit showing the plans and models of this never-built freeway system.

A 60’s illustration of how downtown Vancouver would have looked had the freeway been built.

So what happened? Why doesn’t downtown have a 12 lane freeway? Well, it turned out the people who happily lived in Chinatown, Strathcona and Gastown in 1970 preferred not to be forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for a giant road. Surprise huh?

A concerted community campaign led by the residents of Chinatown put a stop to Tom’s terrific plans. The only stretch that got built was the Georgia St. and Dunsmuir St. viaducts, demolishing a neighhourhood known as Hogan’s Alley. In 1970 this part of town housed Vancouver’s black community and unfortunately the rearguard action by the Eastside communities came too late to save it. But Gastown, Chinatown and (most of) Strathcona were saved.

Today, the City of Vancouver is actively seeking proposals on what to do with the viaducts. My favourite suggestion is to build a park, perhaps honouring one of Hogan’s Alley’s occasional residents – Jimi Hendrix. He would visit his grandmother Nora there in the 1950’s and 60’s. You can make suggestions to the City of Vancouver on what to do with the viaducts here.

But what does all this have to do with the steam clock you might ask?? Good question. Following the saving of Gastown, the government started to invest in the area. Funds came in to refurbish the historic buildings that had fallen into disrepair. Businesses started to return and tourists started to feel welcome.

Gastown gets a facelift, 1972. CVA 780-633.

By 1977 the regeneration of Gastown was largely complete. Conscious the area needed a focal point to draw people in, store owners banded together and funded the clock. It’s steam theme a reference to the industrial past of the area, where steam pipes once ran underground powering machinery.

Missing the point? Inscription on west side of the Gastown clock.

The inscription on the clock celebrates the restoration of Gastown. Interestingly the inscription does not make any specific reference to Tom Campbell’s unsuccessful freeway plans. I wonder if it was felt politically imprudent to embarrass a former mayor who had only been out of office for a few years, by drawing attention to his failed plans. I would be interested to hear from anyone who was part of the 1977 committee that funded, built and inscribed the clock who may know more!

Photo courtesy Walt Stoneburner

So now every time I look at the clock I imagine Gastown as a bare patch of concrete, permanently in darkness, as cars thunder overhead on a giant elevated freeway. And then the clock doesn’t seem so bad after all.

Will Woods is founder and Chief Storyteller at Forbidden Vancouver (www.forbiddenvancouver.ca)

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7 Responses to Inside Vancouver’s Hidden Past – The Secret History of the Gastown Clock…

  1. Gayle myers

    The famous Gastown Steam Clock was built by horologist Raymond Saunders, owner of The Gastown Steam Clock Company just opposite the clock. He built it in 1977 based on an 1875 design. The world’s only steam clock is powered by steam from an underground systems of pipes that supply steam to heat many downtown buildings.

    Ray is a wonderful guy still alive and a family frined- there is a duplicate in Kerrisdale and Tokyo

    thought he should get some credit

  2. Shaminder

    I’m confused. I remember visiting gas town on a school field trip in late ’75 or early ’76 and the clock was the then. It couldn’t have been built in ’77 unless it is a replacement. I was in a different school by then.

    • Hi Shaminder. That’s interesting! This is Will here, writer of the post. I am not aware of a clock preceding the Gastown clock. The clock was built over a street air vent from what I understand. Could the clock you mention have been in a different location in Gastown perhaps?

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  6. Tom

    The actual clock mechanism is powered by steam. The 3 electric motors you reference:
    1. Spins a fan to blow the steam out from the top. It is there to help the effect of steam blowing through the clock.
    2 & 3. Operate the valves for the five steam whistles, one whistle is actually from a tug boat.

    The clock works were actually built in England and are a copy from an 1875 design. The clock is authentically steam driven from a small steam engine that was supplied from Stuart Turner Limited-Henley-on-Thames. The engine is a 1 piston Stuart #4 which runs at a super low 17 psi.

    There is a lot of mechanical stuff going on, but the basics is that the steam engine is used to lift balls (weight) to the top of the mechanism, and then the balls roll down a track, and in doing so their weight drives the clock. The mechanics are actually very interesting.

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