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by Billy Shank

Tic Toc Goes the Redstone Clock

Above the entrance to the Redstone Inn, inside a looming square spire, within what feels to me like a miniature captain’s wheelhouse resides a bastion to a time gone by. It is a Seth Thomas tower clock built in Thomaston, Connecticut, in 1901 and installed the following year. When I first came to Colorado in 1979, part of my duties as maintenance man/chief horse wrangler was to care for this beauty. It wasn’t running at the time and with the help of my father, we were able to coax it to life and get it to run like a…well, like a clock. What follows is a story of my musings about returning to this, now volunteer, labor of love, a task I share with my best friend, Mary.


This is intended to be a human-interest story. The main character of this story though is not human at all. At least not entirely. This is a story about a clock. But first, please indulge me as we take a couple of dozen big steps backward in time: Millennial sized steps. 


Archaeological evidence suggests that primitive men and women left evidence of their tracking the passage of time. The phases of the moon and the rising and setting of the sun and stars throughout the year have always been the measure of time. From early cave paintings to scratches, nicks, and gouges in bone and stone monuments, humans have demonstrated a need and value for the tracking and recording of time. 


Now, come forward with me to a more recent past. One experienced by our grandparents and great grandparents. The era is during the second period of industrialization that followed the Industrial Revolution, and the setting is Redstone, Colorado, and around the very early 1900s. 


The situation is set in a coal-mining town — a Company town. In this town are children, teachers, shop keepers, maintenance workers, water managers, early electricians, chimney sweeps, housewives and, of course, coal miners and cokers, who are all part of the Company in one way or another. These folks were generally poor and came to Redstone in search of a better life. 


With the creation of John C. Osgood’s little village of “enlightened industrial paternalism” (one of the first towns in the US to have electric lights), it offered a possibility of opportunity, and also steady gainful employment. Families and bachelors alike had little or no wealth of their own, and many of the workers lacked fancy personal accoutrements, one of which would be a pocket watch. 


Village life ran as villages do; governed mostly by the rising and setting of the sun, but company life marched to a different beat which ran on a 24-hour schedule. For them, their schedules were divided into day, swing, and night shifts — each with their divisions of duties, a mid-shift meal, and a break, if you were lucky enough that the straw boss wasn’t watching too closely. 


Miners were going on and off shift, children were going to and coming from school, wives were washing clothes as wells shopping for them, horses were harnessed and shod, and shops were opening and closing as needed for the miners. The only practical way to schedule and synchronize all of village life was with one clock. 


A big clock with a big bell, one that rang the appropriate time, day and night; and someone had to take care of that most important centerpiece of village life: the all-important organizer of wake and work, work and eat, eat and sleep. The Big Clock. 


"A community with an unreliable town clock must be regarded with suspicion. The town clock is the most emphatic public word for a city. It should be honest in its tale; the information it gives should be beyond suspicion of any doubt. If it lies, the morals of the city must suffer; for it is the conspicuous example of lying or truth, to the public body..."

— The Jeweler's Keystone, September 1905.


Forty orbital cycles later, I find myself the beneficiary of fortunate happenstance. I am again at the helm of this mighty timepiece along with my companion, Mary; we share this labor of love as cockeyed clock masters. After gaining access to “the clock tower” room, the only rentable room in the Redstone Inn without a toilet, I climb the ladder and open the locked hatch so that we may climb into the spire. Once we extend our apologies to George (an affectionate name given to the spirit said to roam the halls of the Inn after dark) for our disturbance and to avoid bad karma, we set about our chosen duties beginning with inspecting the tower for debris blown in by seasonal winds and feathers left behind by aviary tourists. 


The clock room seems diminutive within the tower, with no real hint as to what is inside other than the massive bell on top and the drive shafts poking out to the four clock faces. A first impression when entering the room is that inside is a monstrous, distorted, steampunk version of your grandmother’s foot-powered sewing machine only with more bells and whistles. 


Fear not, potential future clock winders, this machine is no more complicated and menacing than Mr. Rogers in a comfy cardigan and slippers. And that is exactly what it is — a super-sized grandfather clock on steroids. It has a pendulum the size of a watermelon. This is its power weight, the equivalent of two bags of concrete that you wind up with a big crank periodically to keep the old boy ticking. 


Like many grandfather clocks, this tower clock was built to be an eight-day wind. Meaning, if you wind the clock every Sunday it allows for an extra day in case you forgot or fell asleep while watching that movie you’ve already seen. The number of days the clock can run is limited only by the length of travel the weights move from top to bottom. In the case of our clock tower, the weight can travel nearly two stories on a single winding! A length that allows our clock to run for 11 days (as we found out by accident)! 


Now, about that bell:

“The big clock in the Redstone Inn tower regularly tolls out the hours now, it’s rich tones reverberating up and down the valley.”

— Camp and Plant, Nov. 15, 1902 


It didn’t take long to discover that having a big bell in the roof of a hotel that “tolls out the hours… up and down the valley” goes over about as well as a robocall on your phone to let you know “your social security number has been suspended due to fraudulent activity” right at midnight…and at one… and at two… and at three…and at…well, I think you get the gist. Yet, much to our astonishment, the mechanism that rings the bell every hour on the hour has mysteriously and inexplicably been disconnected. Thanks, George!


The world has changed a bit in the 100 plus years, and our village is now global, encompassing the entire planet. Just as the small village did back then, this modern global society revolves around a central, coordinated timekeeping system that nearly 7.5 billion people casually carry in their pockets or display on their wrists. 


So why do we make this weekly pilgrimage to climb several flights of stairs, two ladders, and two hatchways, to bestow a gift of life to an inanimate pile of cast iron and brass gears for a world that seldom looks to the sky as the source to regulate their lives? 


Because the clock had a purpose. And it still has a purpose! As much as Stonehenge and a Roman sundial still have a purpose. If the sun rises over the Heel Stone or passes over a sundial and no one is there to notice, do they still mark time? 


The answer is yes, as well as for the Redstone clock if we, or someone else, continue with this labor of love. If you are ever passing by and care to look up to notice the time, this clock will continue to serve its purpose.

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