Times aren’t changing much, as city’s clock nears centennial

HUDSON–It’s hard to imagine a time when not everyone had access to a clock, and even harder to imagine a time when clocks lacked faces and were heard, not seen, but that is the reason they were first placed in towers, so that everyone could hear them. And as Hudson’s tower clock approaches its 100th birthday, it appears to be in such good working order and is keeping such good time, it could last centuries more.

In 1912, a relatively prosperous time in Hudson’s history, a new clock was purchased by the city for the tower of the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of 4th and Warren streets. The city had a surplus of $650 in its coffers left over from the Fulton Centennial Celebration of 1909, and city commissioners decided to devote the cash to the project. Two men, J. Rider Cady and Frederick J. Collier, were appointed to form a committee and solicit bids for a clock that would be as much an expression of civic pride as a means of getting to work on time.

By the early 1900s, the Presbyterian Church was the place to see and be seen on Sundays. In the 1800s President Martin Van Buren had attended services there, as had the family of artist Frederic Church. The artist designed patterns and stencils for the redecoration of the church’s interior in the 1860s.

Common Council minutes from 1912 and 1913, found by Hudson Historian Pat Fenoff several years ago and kept at the church by its pastor, Reverend Dave McMillan, show that discussion concerning the purchase a new electric clock began 98 years ago this month. The clock would replace another one already in place in the church’s steeple that was keeping, in the minister’s words, “close to good time.” A bronze bell from the old church had been melted down and recast with added metal to create a bigger and more sonorous bell. It is the same bell that we hear today.

The committee discovered that few electric clocks were available at the time, and only one company, Western Union, could provide electricity. This stymied the prospects for competitive bidding, so the committee decided instead to seek the best clock available for the money they had. The Seth Thomas Company of Thomaston, Conn. came in with the lowest bid at $815. The next lowest bid was $920. The clock ended up costing $864 on delivery, with an additional $25 (reduced from $100 initially proposed by a member of the Common Council) allocated for installation.

“It must have been some job getting it up here,” said Skip Weed, foreman at Hudson’s Department of Public Works, who now maintains the clock. We were perched on a seven- foot-square platform in the steeple contemplating the solid cast iron, waist-high stand supporting the clock mechanism with its solid brass gears and iron shafts that control the clock hands in each of its three milk glass faces. To get there we had climbed up to the second story choir loft, past the bellows of the ancient organ, up another flight of stairs, then up three flights of ladders.

The clock’s pendulum is hidden from view, boxed in below the floor, but one can watch the rhythmic back and forth movement of its wooden shaft that passes through a narrow slit in the floor. The bell, enclosed in the uppermost part of the steeple, above our heads, although it hasn’t been seen in years, continues to sound methodically each hour. Its mechanism is the one part of the clock that must still be wound by hand.

Less is more when it comes to maintenance, says Mr. Weed, who dusts and occasionally lubricates the clockworks, winds it weekly and changes the time twice a year. He calls the strong and dependable clock “an amazing piece of machinery” that will last forever. “There’s nothing made like that today,” he said. Planned obsolescence, the motto of modern businesses everywhere, seems not to have been the organizing principal of manufacturers in 1912.

Electrician Joseph Pulver, now retired, is the person who finally harnessed electricity to wind the clock in order to make his own job easier. “After winding it for a week or two I said, this is ridiculous. You’re already a bit winded when you get up there. It took 10 minutes and some effort. It was geared to be done by hand, but I thought there had to be a better way to do it,” he said.

At the time, Mr. Pulver was filling in for the clock’s regular keeper, Don Gorsline, who had wound the clock since the 1950s and was away on medical leave. A gifted tinkerer since childhood, Mr. Pulver bought a small, 1/2 horsepower motor and parts with $60.00 from his own pocket and hooked it up to the drive shaft that lifts the weights (at least 600 lbs of cast steel weights Mr. Pulver estimates) connected by a cable that runs up a vertical wooden track five stories from ground level. The long distance the weights have to travel powered by gravity, enables the clock to run by itself for 8 days. Mr. Pulver was given the job of clock keeper after Mr. Gorsline’s retirement and so reaped the benefit of his handiwork all over again until his own retirement in 1995.

The wiring Mr. Pulver hooked his small motor to dates back to the earliest wiring in Hudson. Installed to electrify the lighting of the clock, light fixtures were controlled by a timer to conserve energy. Originally, the council minutes say, a contract was set up with Albany Southern, a supplier of gas, for lighting the clock. Ornate gas light fixtures can still be seen in the steeple. Now, with the advent of energy efficient bulbs, lights stay on continuously.

The clock is accurate. Its face says 1:03 in the afternoon and matches the time on my cell phone.

The Presbyterian congregation, formed in 1790 by the original Proprietors of Hudson, the city’s first 30 settlers, built the current church in 1837. The current facade, tower and steeple were built in 1876, replacing an older clock tower. A different tower clock that had been moved from the previous church located on Second and Pattison streets was sold.

Seth Thomas tower clocks have been installed in church towers, post offices, armories, court houses, town halls, fire stations, schools, libraries, banks, businesses, stables and private estate houses across the country. In New York Belmont Race Track and Grand Central Station sport famous public clocks by the maker. At one point the City of Troy had 6 tower clocks and the Copake Iron Works was graced with one.

Don Moore, president of Hudson’s Common Council, said that the city annually budgets around $800 for the maintenance of the clock.

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