Clock's chime is back in time

City workers fix Main Street tower after Westminster residents notice odd pealing from historic structure

March 03, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

It chimed about 13 times at 9 a.m. as a crew worked on Westminster's 19th-century Main Street clock, but by Monday evening the landmark appeared to be keeping time again.

The clock, in the historic firehouse tower downtown, started chiming about a half-hour fast about two weeks ago. That's when residents started calling city officials.

So city workers began working last week to fix the Seth Thomas clock, which is more than 100 years old.

Jeff Glass, the city's assistant director of public works for streets and utilities, said he had about 10 calls in less than a week.

"It's a surprising number, but it's a landmark," he said. "You miss the chime. The chime doesn't meet the time."

The city has had an agreement for decades to maintain the clock in perpetuity, and the firehouse clock tower has become a symbol for the downtown, said Mayor Kevin E. Dayhoff.

"It's a very important landmark, an icon," Dayhoff said. "When you think of the city of Westminster, one thinks of the clock tower. It's very historic ... and it takes a lot of very tender loving care. It's very important to us to stay on top of it."

The city doesn't own the building, Dayhoff said, "but there is an agreement that lives with the building, even if it changes hands, that we will take care of the clock, a perpetual agreement that the city has so that we can make sure that this landmark is taken care of."

In the 92-foot tower, a pulley from the clockwork causes a steel hammer to strike a half-ton bronze bell that was made in Baltimore and donated by a fire official's wife in 1896.

The East Main Street firehouse was home to Westminster Fire Engine and Hose Company No. 1 from 1896 until 1997. Founded in 1879, the fire company moved to a new building on John Street in 1997 after its equipment outgrew the old building. It was sold to a private developer.

But the city of Westminster looks out for the clock.

In fact, Glass said, a worker was up in the tower - just watching the clock go through its normal revolution Friday afternoon.

"It's like watching paint dry, but he thinks he may have the answer - called mercury switches," Glass said of the worker, noting that the clock has been modified in its 100-plus years.

"Years ago, it was more like a grandfather clock, with the weights and the whole bit - even before my tenure with the city 20-some-odd years ago," Glass said. "It was updated to mercury switches from the old gravity system. ... It was a new way to do it."

Those switches, along with normal wear and tear, appeared to be the problem, Glass said, so the city will not have to call in an outside clock specialist.

"You have to have your ears peeled," Glass said of the work on the clock.

About 9 a.m. Monday morning, "We got it to chime a lot more than it was supposed to - like 13 times - but a couple of adjustments were made," he said.

"It's running like clockwork," he said yesterday.

The age of the clock has made it hard to get parts, Glass said, noting that the city has occasionally had to turn to a machine shop. "We take a part in and say, `Make me one of these.'"

"The clock has gone out just a handful of times" in the two decades that Glass has been here, he said, noting, "It's very reliable."

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