Vancouver Loses its Beloved Steam Clock (for 2 months)

Photo credit: Junichi Ishito | Flickr

Photo credit: Junichi Ishito | Flickr

Gastown has lost an icon. The legendary Gastown Steam Clock, the steam-powered, 16-foot-tall clock on the corner of Cambie and Water Streets, is gone.

The clock was removed on Wednesday morning, Oct. 8, by city work crews, who carted it off on a flat-bed truck.  It will spend the next two months in a city works yard getting some long overdue repairs before being returned to its original location.

The clock debuted on Sept. 26, 1977.  If it happens to look a lot older than that, there’s good reason. The Victorian-style timepiece – with its  brass and copper finishings – was part of a larger effort to give Gastown a more vintage look and lure in tourists (other touches included the faux cobblestones laid down on Water Street).  The clock was installed to cover an existing steam grate and (at least, according to Wikipedia) “prevent street people from sleeping on the spot in cold weather.”

Photo credit: Canuck85 | Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Canuck85 | Wikimedia Commons

Since installation, the steam clock has delighted countless tourists, spewing forth a steady stream of vapour and “whistling” on the quarter hour.   It’s powered by Vancouver’s unique steam heat, generated at a nearby downtown plant.  The steam drives a miniature steam engine, which in turn lifts multiple steel balls upward.  The force of the descending balls powers the clock.

But over the years, the clock has taken a beating. Insulation is falling off and jamming the gears, according to a report in the Vancouver Sun.  The delicate steam manifold system needs to be redone, mechanical parts have to be repaired and several panes of glass need replacing.  The extensive overhaul is expected to cost $50,000, nearly as much as the original price paid for the clock ($58,000) back in 1977.

Photo credit: Rick Chung | Flickr

Photo credit: Rick Chung | Flickr

Some interesting trivia about the clock:

  • Due to a problem with its original design, the clock was briefly powered by electricity rather than steam.
  • Nickleback fans will recognize the clock from the cover of the 2011 album Here and Now.
  • The original designer of the clock, Ray Saunders, still lives in Vancouver and maintains the clock regularly.  He has gone on to build six steam clocks around the world, including his latest in Katoomba, Australia.

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