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Urban Planning

In Gastown, the Case of the Misunderstood Clock

Tourists flock to appreciate a past that never was. But the kitschy attraction nonetheless holds the story of the neighbourhood.

Jen St. Denis 14 Apr 2023TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

[Editor’s note: Got an empty lot near you? A crumbling building? A bridge to nowhere? Have no fear, The Tyee’s Place Detective is here! Our monthly series will explore mysteries of uncommon places and common places with mysterious pasts. We’ll take a magnifying glass to powerful forces in B.C. — from colonialism to resource extraction to real estate speculation — and how they manifest in your corner of the province.]

It looks a little like the progeny of a grandfather clock and Big Ben. It toots out the Westminster chime. It appeared on the cover of a Nickelback album. And it’s always surrounded by crowds of tourists.

To some, the Gastown steam clock is a charming symbol of Vancouver. To others, it’s a reminder that much of Gastown looks old, but isn’t — the red brick streets, black iron bollards and Victorian-era street lights were all added in the 1970s in an effort to revitalize the neighbourhood.

Revelations that the clock is not actually powered by steam but by electricity, and that its construction was completed in 1977 — regularly pop up on message boards and in local news articles.

A 2015 comment on a Reddit thread about the clock sums up how many Vancouverites feel about the steamy landmark: “It's always been a mystery to me why tourists all gravitate to that one spot in Vancouver when there are so many other things to see and do.”

But civic historian John Atkin argues the steam clock is misunderstood, and that it should be celebrated as a whimsical fun bit of city infrastructure that also tells the story of Gastown’s urban transformation in the 1970s.

“I think the steam clock is the most authentic thing in Gastown,” Atkin said, “because it's an object that was constructed solely for amusement and fun on top of a steam vent, which is part of the city infrastructure. And it's not pretending to be anything else.”

The clock’s maker, Raymond Saunders, confirms that he conceived and built the clock to be fun — complete with a concrete base featuring a ledge children can stand on to watch its inner workings. He still delights in mingling with the crowds of tourists who flock to the clock, and sometimes at the end of a conversation will reveal that he is indeed its creator.

“It's amazing how many people take pictures of it every day,” the horologist enthused in a phone interview from his Richmond workshop. “It's probably one of the most photographed clocks in the world.”

Atkin says the installation of the Gastown steam clock came at the end of an effort to transform what was an industrial warehouse district into a tourist-friendly neighbourhood full of restaurants and shops.

“The clock is kind of the cap on everything. It's like the period in the sentence,” Atkin said.

Warehouses and docks

In the early 1950s, Gastown was a bustling place. Passenger ships that travelled B.C.’s coastline and connected with Victoria and Seattle docked at four piers, helpfully named A, B, C and D, located in Gastown. Ocean liners brought passengers from Hawaii, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan.

The streets were also busy with delivery trucks, with much of Vancouver’s produce trade centred in the area.

A Nabob truck pictured at Cordova and Water Streets. The photo is black and white.
A Nabob truck leaves a building at Cordova and Water Street in the 1940s. Photo via the City of Vancouver Archives, AM1184-S1-: CVA 1184-2081.

“If you were to walk the streets, you would be trying to dodge trucks parked across the sidewalks or coming out of the loading docks that were along the street,” Atkin said.

But with the transition from ships to highway travel as the preferred way to move people and goods, Gastown’s passenger travel and warehouse infrastructure started to fall into disuse. The steamship companies shut down and the fruit and vegetable warehouses moved to Malkin Avenue in Strathcona, a better location for connections to roads and highways.

A black and white aerial photo of Water Street shows old buildings, and paved streets.
Water Street looking east in 1913. Photo via the City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-2-: CVA 371-726.1.

By the 1960s, Gastown was an increasingly derelict and empty place. Most of the residents left in the area were older men who had spent their working lives in seasonal jobs like logging, but had returned to the city to find cheap housing in the single-room occupancy hotels that dot Gastown, Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside. Many of those men spent their days drinking together at the docks.

Business and property owners in the area were starting to speak out in the local press about the need to “clean up” the neighbourhood.

“It was an attack on the retired workforce that essentially built the province,” Atkin said.

“And this kind of really retrograde language that's really aimed at people, but kind of dehumanizing them.”

Project 200

Two visions of urban renewal were being contemplated for Gastown, Atkin said. One was the Project 200 plan, which would have seen highways cut through downtown and highrise office towers constructed throughout the downtown area (the former Vancouver Sun and Province building, at 200 Granville St., is the sole remnant of Project 200).

A vintage photo shows the unnatural platform supporting the 200 Granville St. high rise, with parking underneath.
A 1986 photo of the platform at 200 Granville St. Photo via the City of Vancouver Archives, COV-S544-: CVA 784-078.

In Gastown, city planners cooked up a truly bananas plan to build a platform level with Hastings Street that would stretch to the waterfront, with streets and buildings built on top of the platform and the infrastructure needed for the operation of the port running beneath the platform.

“So they could still, believe it or not, run the trains underneath all of this development,” Atkin explained. “Imagine it with tank cars and dangerous chemicals and other stuff, because they still envisioned the port functioning as it does, with traditional freight.”

Vancouverites organized politically to fight this plan, and the federal government refused to fund Project 200.

In the late 1960s, there was renewed interest in Vancouver’s history: a walking tour of Gastown organized in 1968 as part of an effort to fight Project 200 attracted 600 people, and restaurants like the Spaghetti Factory started to open in the neighbourhood. Hippies were opening coffee shops and defying B.C.’s law against operating businesses on Sunday, irritating Vancouver’s then-mayor, Tom Campbell, who is maybe best-known for his efforts to suppress counterculture in the city.

A black and white photo shows people lined up outside the Old Spaghetti Factory.
Customers line up outside the Old Spaghetti Factory, a restaurant that is still operating in Gastown today, in the early 1970s. Photo via the City of Vancouver Archives, COV-S587-: CVA 69-26.19.

It was a typical gentrification story: “Suddenly people are going, ‘This is kind of cool down here,’” Atkin said.

Investors were buying up buildings and property owners also sensed an opportunity to play up the collection of interesting old buildings in the area, starting the Townsite Renaissance Corp. Over the course of the 1970s, Gastown was transformed into an area focused on tourism and entertainment rather than industry.

But in the rush to mine Vancouver’s history for profit, there were exaggerations and missteps that still echo today.

Blood Alley, for example, was a name made up by newspaper columnists in the 1960s after several modern-day murders, and the macabre stories that have grown around the name of this alley have nothing to do with its history, Atkin says.

Then there’s the questionable celebration of the colonial saloon keeper who founded the Granville Townsite, where Gastown sits today. In 2022, young Indigenous people tore down the statue of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton that had been placed there in the 1970s by the property owners trying to promote the area at the time.

And the conflict between business owners, tourists and low-income residents is still in play today, with concerns regularly expressed about the Downtown Eastside “spilling over” into Gastown, and single-room occupancy hotels on Water Street blamed for bringing the problems of the Downtown Eastside to the neighbourhood.

Clock tick tock

Saunders, the creator of the steam clock, said the timepiece was just one of several ideas dreamed up by city planners. The city had been trying to conceal the vents of a downtown steam heating system for years, but some of those attempts were a bust: trees planted in concrete planters on top of the vents tended to die because their roots were constantly blasted with hot steam.

When it came to the vent at Water Street and Cambie, the city planners mused that perhaps the steam could be used to heat an aquarium. Or power some sort of art. But the idea they approached Saunders with in 1975 was a clock.

A black-and-white photo shows people standing around the steam clock as it vents steam.
The Gastown steam clock in the mid-1980s. Photo via the City of Vancouver Archives, COV-S639-1-F65-: CVA 790-2085.

With Big Ben and a grandfather clock as his inspiration, Saunders worked on the clock for two years, fabricating many of the clock’s components. He ended up spending around $22,000 of his own money to complete it, although donors later came through to cover the extra cost.

At the time Saunders had a metal sculpture gallery on Water Street — the clock was built near the spot where it sits today. Saunders recalls that the day the clock was placed on Water Street, he had worked through the night to complete it and was in tears as it was unveiled, with his daughter exclaiming, “Daddy, you made something good!”

A contemporary photo shows people gathering at the steam clock.
Tourists gather at the Gastown steam clock on April 10, 2023. Photo for The Tyee by Jen St. Denis.

The steam powers the clock’s winding mechanism, and an electronic programmable controller now blows the whistles — “because the old unit was worn out and it kept stalling and stopping,” Saunders explained. “Halfway through the song it would leave one whistle blowing for 15 minutes.”

When it comes to some of the misperceptions about the clock — namely that it’s really old and completely powered by steam — the plaque at the base of the clock explains that steam winds the weights in the clock, although it doesn’t state that it was completed in 1977. Saunders says he now thinks that instead of calling the clock “the world’s first steam-powered clock,” the plaque should read “the world’s first steam-wound clock.”

There are now seven similar clocks in other cities around the world, all modelled after Saunders' 1977 creation.

Gastown’s future

Atkin said it’s now time to think about the future of Gastown and how to reflect the neighbourhood’s actual history — including how it was changed in the 1970s.

“I think there needs to be some layers of interpretation that start to talk about the origins of the district,” Atkin said. “And I think a little bit of the Townsite stuff and then some more robust [information about] what the district was up to the 1950s.”

Although the streetlights and the bricks that pave the sidewalks and Water Street form part of that 1970s attempt to play up the Victorian era of the neighbourhood, rather than being original to the Victorian era, Atkin argues those design elements are now part of Gastown’s story and should stay.

And in a neighbourhood that mostly commemorates colonial culture, there’s another important element missing, Atkin said.

“What we haven't done and what we really do need to do is go deeper and put that layer of Indigenous history on the site,” Atkin said.

“Because there are known sites of use and description from the three nations. We need to, in deep consultation with [the Musqueam, Tsleil-Wauthuth and Squamish], to have that layer of Indigeneity laid on top of the place.”

If you have an idea for a place you think we should explore in a future story, get in touch via email.  [Tyee]

Read more: Urban Planning

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