The Town Clock: A part of Owen Sound's history representing the efforts of the community to rise above difficulties and strive for a successful future.
"What time is it?” is a question that everyone asks, not only the people around them, but also themselves. Time governs almost every aspect of our lives. Bedtime, lunchtime, time to go to work, and for me it’s time to get this article to The Sun Times! These are all common phrases in our day-to-day routine. Consequently, clocks serve an important function in our lives.
Recognizing this fact, most communities installed large clocks, usually on towers, on the city or town halls, and Owen Sound was no exception.
in the late 1860s, it was decided that Owen Sound needed a new town hall. The leaders of the community felt that the next decade would prove to be one of glorious growth and progress and that a new town hall would be a symbol of optimism for future development. On March 23, 1868, a bylaw was passed allowing for the issuing of a $10,000 debenture to help finance the building of the town hall.
However, there was much debate over whether the new edifice should include a clock. Finally, a compromise was reached, and plans were implemented for the creation of a “dummy” clock. The proponents of the clock hoped that, when it was more financially feasible, the fake clock would be replaced.
Owen Sound's Dummy Clock - Paul White Historic Photograph Collection
Unfortunately, the town hall project met with some unexpected financial problems. The original contract to build the facility had been for $14,000. However, the contractors ran out of money before the roof was completed. In order to finish the project, a private citizen, the owner of the Coulson House, J.P. Coulson, had to step in and provide the capital necessary to finish the erection of the town hall. Coulson spent $8,000 to see the project completed.
Fifty years later, in 1920, the town of Owen Sound became the City of Owen Sound, and it was decided that the “dummy” clock should be replaced. The new clock would serve as a part of the celebrations around the official proclamation of the community achieving status as a city. The “dummy” clock must have cased confusion for visitors to community. No matter the time of day, anyone looking at the clock to find out the time would see the same time, 9:03.
A clock was purchased from the British firm of Gillet and Johnston for $3,112 and a further $6,000 was spent to install the clock. Finally, anyone in need of knowing the time of day could simply lift their head skyward in the direction of the city hall and that knowledge would be forthcoming. For the next four decades, the city clock was a dominant part of Owen Sound’s landscape. Then disaster struck!
On the morning of February 24, 1961, fire destroyed the city hall complex. Although the fire started in the early hours of the morning, the clock continued to tick as flames and smoke swirled about its face. Finally, at 7:47, the clock, perhaps finally recognized that it shared a similar fate to the building that it rested upon, stopped running.
Until it was removed from its tower, the clock with its hands stuck at 7:47, served as a reminder of that tragic February morning. Recently the old clock has been the topic of conversation around the city. Some citizens wan to restore it and present it in a manner that will serve as testament to our past. This is a wonderful idea!
In a way, the old town clock is indeed a symbol of this community. Owen Sound had to wait a long time to get a clock that worked. Throughout Owen Sound’s history, there have been other long periods of waiting for success, such as the arrival of a railway connection. But these delays have not stopped the citizens of this community from continuing to strive to improve their town. The old clock represented the days when, in spite of losing the CPR Great Lakes fleet, the community continued to develop and was rewarded with the designation of city status.
The restoration of the clock would be a great testimonial to everyone who has worked to make Owen Sound a better place to live and work!
A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on February 27, 1998.