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Behind the Steam: The Inside Story of the Gastown Steam Clock

By Daryl R. Stennett

Review By Lani Russwurm

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 181 Spring 2014  | p. 134-35

With a seemingly permanent cluster of tourists snapping its photo, the Gastown steam clock is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist attractions in Vancouver. Despite its misleading Edwardian appearance (it was built in the 1970s) and the use of archaic technology (a steam engine), Daryl Stennett shows that while the steam clock may be a charlatan as a historical artifact, the story of how it came to be is fascinating in its own right. 

Drawing from extensive interviews with clock maker Ray Saunders, volunteer assistants, and City bureaucrats, Stennett walks the reader through the conception of the clock as a creative way to conceal a steam vent through the many trials of building something clockmakers warned would not work (“time and steam don’t mix goodbye!” [17]). The saga continues for decades after the unveiling, as Saunders and City staff are faced with problems such as its deafening noise, vandalism, car crashes, off-key chimes, and its inability to keep accurate time. Ultimately the back-up electric motor became the clock’s main driving force and a computerized tune-keeper was added, but these modifications do not seem to have diminished its status as a Gastown icon.

Stennett mainly paints a tale of the human spirit’s triumph against the odds (and physics), but the more interesting story from an urban political history perspective is that this first-of-its-kind project was something so innovative and filled with unknowns that it would never be green-lit by today’s obsessively risk-averse city bureaucrats. Given that the clock cost double and took two years longer to build than initial estimates, Behind the Steam can be read as a case study helping to explain some of that risk-aversion.

A drawback of Behind the Steam is Stennett’s persistent hammering the reader with a positive spin on the steam clock. Thankfully he does not cherry-pick the positive aspects of the story the way a tourist brochure might, but the over-abundant exclamation marks throughout the text and sentences such as “But the quality at its heart is a three-letter word: FUN” (101) at times feel pushy. And unnecessarily so, because the writing is otherwise clear and to the point, the research impressively thorough, and the subject so worthy that the words could have told a perfectly engaging and informative story by themselves without the author’s salesmanship getting in the way.

Stylistic quibbles aside, Behind the Steam amply delivers on its promise of being “The Inside Story of the Gastown Steam Clock.” At 127 pages and richly illustrated with documents and photographs, it is a quick read that informs rather than bores the reader, and that should appeal to local and urban historians, civic boosters, horologists, and the occasional tourist interested in delving deeper into this steampunk roadside oddity than the tourist brochures offer.

Behind the Steam: The Inside Story of the Gastown Steam Clock
By Daryl R. Stennett 
Sechelt: Pellucid Expressions Publishing, 2011. 127 pp. $24.95 paper