For several decades, Raymond Saunders has looked forward to two Sundays each year. Vancouver’s resident horologist, has long been tasked with adjusting public clocks throughout the city for daylight time, a project that takes him two days to complete.

Among the roughly 200 clocks Saunders has installed and maintained during his career are several of his own creation—most notably the iconic Gastown Steam Clock. Ticking since 1977, its billowing steam—and the sound of “Westminster Quarters” whistling every quarter hour—attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.

As Saunders, now 80 years old, moves away from clock maintenance, and British Columbia wants to move away from daylight time, he is passing on his knowledge to others.

What do you think about ending daylight time?

It’s one of the best money-making weekends I have. I can afford to lose that job, but I’d still go and do a service job and lubricate the clocks once a year, because you want them to keep running properly. But I’m concerned about people that do construction and that. I don’t think they’d be happy about abolishing daylight time because they’ll be working in the latter part of the afternoon in the dark.

How did the Gastown Steam Clock come about?

There is a steam system that goes around the city, and, to ventilate the rooms underground with all the steam equipment, they need to cover the vent. They asked me if I could build a steam clock to cover it. I was too naive to know it couldn’t be done. I said I would do it, and then I had a problem acquiring the power clock mechanism. I wrote to two major companies in England and they both suggested I don’t even consider making this clock because no one had ever done it before. I finally found another company that said they would build a clock mechanism for me that would last 100 years.

How does it work? Is it entirely steam powered?

It’s actually a pendulum tower clock mechanism. The plaque reads “World’s First Steam-Powered Clock,” but it never was a steampowered clock. It’s always been a gravity-driven clock. It was a steam wound clock, but the little steam engine required too much maintenance. It lasted about eight or 10 years, but it was never meant as a commercial steam engine.

Why is it so popular?

People like clocks. This one creates attention because there’s steam coming out of the whistles 24/7. That heats up the whistles and makes for better notes. It’s a curiosity. There was a little boy there one day, he was maybe three or four years old, and he exclaimed, “Mommy, look! The clock’s on fire!” She had to lean down and explain what steam was to him. I’ve never forgotten that little guy.

Photograph by Leonu courtesy of iStock.

Saunder’s Gastown Recommendations

To eat

The Water St. Café is located across the street from the clock. “It’s a very nice restaurant, and it has lots of outdoor seating in the summer,” says Saunders. He recommends any of the seafood dishes.

To see

Le Magasin building houses Saunders’ World Time Globe Installation, a four-foot diameter orb made of clear plexiglass. “There’s a complicated mechanism inside with 10 time zone clocks.”

To hear 

A five-minute stroll from the clock, the Revel Room is a bistro that features live entertainment—from jazz to country and rockabilly— Tuesdays through Sundays.

[This story appears in the March 2020 edition of WestJet Magazine.]