British ColumbiaFROM THE ARCHIVES

Revered and reviled: The Gastown steam clock turns 40

Thousands of tourists pose with the clock each year, but critics say they're worshipping a false idol

Maryse Zeidler - CBC News

September 24, 2017

The Gastown steam clock has been a mainstay of the historic Vancouver neighbourhood since 1977. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Will Woods is a conflicted man. 

On the one hand, the Vancouver tour operator feels compelled to include Gastown's iconic steam clock as part of the daily walking tours he offers. 

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But then comes the part when Woods has to clarify that the clock — designed to reflect one of the oldest parts of the city — was actually built in 1977. 

"I totally feel conflicted, because I'm not really into that faux history and that pretend old," Woods said. 

"I'm sure the vast majority of people who come think it's a lot older than it is."

Forty years ago Sunday, the Gastown steam clock was revealed to the public, with great fanfare, to a polyester-clad crowd of hundreds.

Vancouver reveals the Gastown steam clock  0:54

Today, the clock is revered by thousands of snap-happy tourists every year, who come to watch it whistle the Westminster chime on the quarter hour.

But it's also reviled by a contingent of Vancouverites who say it's a tacky — and misleading — tourist attraction.

'An icon for the city'

The clock was designed by Raymond Saunders, 77, who now lives in Richmond, B.C.

"The Gastown clock was a real struggle," Saunders said of the project.

It was the first steam clock Saunders had ever worked on.

He had originally estimated building the clock would cost $25,000 when he proposed it in 1975. But he says the project eventually came in at $58,000. 

Raymond Saunders designed and built the steam clock as part of a project to revitalize Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Saunders says it was built to cover a steam vent the city found unsightly. The project was part of the city's effort to revive the historic downtown neighbourhood.

"I'm really proud of how popular it's become — like an icon for the city," Saunders said. 

He is planning to be at the clock today at 11:30 a.m. PT to celebrate its anniversary.

Not at all ancient

But critics like Vancouver comedian Colin Sharp say the clock is an icon they would prefer the city not be known for. 

"It's presented in a way that makes countless tourists think that it's some kind of ancient device, when it's actually from 1977," Sharp says.

Sharp is so passionate about his distaste for the clock he has a five-minute rant about it he often presents during his stand-up routines. 

Vancouver's Gastown steam clock attracts hundreds of tourists every day. (CBC)

Like many critics, one of Sharp's biggest beefs about the clock is that it's not actually powered by steam. 

Saunders admits the clock uses two electric motors — one to wind it up and another to ventilate it. He says it did once use a steam-powered motor, but it only lasted 10 years before breaking down.

He says steam does prompt the clock's signature whistle. 

A missed opportunity?

As for the design, Saunders says it was was meant to reflect the era of the buildings around it — not to deceive anyone.

Tour operator Woods is sympathetic toward the impetus behind the design, but says it was "a missed opportunity." 

Woods says the clock is actually symbolic of a significant historic Vancouver moment — saving Gastown and Chinatown from destruction to build a freeway through the city, which never materialized

Former mayor Tom Campbell had wanted to build the freeway, but faced strong opposition. Today, all that remains of his plans are the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, which are now slated for demolition.

But Woods says that plan's failure prompted the city to invest in reviving Gastown, which included the idea to build the steam clock to attract people to the area.

"It could have really been a monument and a focal point for our city to celebrate the defeat of freeways trespassing on our downtown and destroying historic neighbourhoods," Woods said.

"If it's not a monument to that, what is it a monument to? It's just a clock that's not as old as it looks."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler
@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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