Repairs stop Douglas County Courthouse’s 115-year-old clock

photo by: Nick Krug

David Sparkes, county director of buildings and grounds, looks over the clock gears in the clocktower of the Douglas County Courthouse on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. The gear-drive motor for the clock, which dates back to 1904, is currently being repaired and is expected to be returned and installed in about two weeks.

Keen downtown observers may have noticed in the last week that the hands of the four clocks on the tower of the Douglas County Courthouse are stuck at about seven minutes after 1 o’clock.

David Sparkes, county buildings and grounds director, can give you a more precise reading of the stopped hands by referring to a dial in the clock tower. The dial is a reference for the person using a crank to set the time of the clocks. Right now, the large hand on the dial is stopped halfway between the seventh and eighth minute marks. That was the time Sparkes started removing the electric motor that powers the clocks.

“I noticed the clocks weren’t keeping good time, so I decided to pull the motor,” he said.

photo by: Nick Krug

An image shot at 9:37 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018 shows the Douglas County Courthouse clocks with a time of about 1:08.

photo by: Nick Krug

A small clock, which sits on the gear mechanism, displays the time of the clocks, as can be viewed from outside the courthouse. It is shown on Aug. 30, 2018.

The motor wasn’t original to the clock tower, Sparkes said. It, or one or more before it, replaced the cables and weights that powered the clocks when the courthouse was built in 1903. It was the job of some long-ago county employee to daily ascend the ladder up to a wooden platform of the clock tower to give gravity the necessary assist to keep the hands on the four clocks moving.

“It was set up like a cuckoo clock,” he said. “You pulled the weighted cable to the peak of the tower. The weight traveled down a good 20 feet. It was calibrated to take about 24 hours.”

The cables for it are still in the clock tower, and the weights might be, too. Sparkes said he hasn’t really searched for them in the dark tower.

Electricity made the weights and cables unnecessary, but the mechanism that transfers the power from the motor to the hands of the clocks survives in the assemblage of brass and steel gears, U-joints and drive shafts.

photo by: Nick Krug

A four-sided coupler, which sits on top of the gear mechanism for the Douglas County Courthouse clocks, controls each of the tower’s clocks simultaneously. It is shown on Aug. 30, 2018.

“I believe all the gearing is original from when the courthouse was built in 1903,” Sparkes said. “It’s kind of complicated. It was rebuilt about 20 years ago.”

When working, the electric motor spins at 1,800 rpm, Sparkes said. Gear reduction slows the rotation to 2 rpm so it marries up with the 115-year-old clock mechanism.

Sparkes doesn’t know how old the electric motor is but estimates it has been spinning in the clock tower for at least 50 years.

“It’s an old one,” he said. “They don’t produce them anymore. I couldn’t find another one like it to put in its place.”

With no replacement available, the motor was sent to Patchen Electric and Industrial Supply for a rewind of its copper coils. It will be more than a week before the repair is complete.

It will then be about a five-minute job to reinstall the motor, Sparkes said. The repair will necessitate another rare trip into the clock tower.

“We have to set the clocks with the daylight saving time changes and to oil the mechanism,” he said. “You really get a sense of history up there with the wooden floor and the old mechanism. You can tell they are really dated.”


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