Clock specialist works to fix stalled clocks in Weld County Courthouse
April 20, 2017
The master clock that once powered the pneumatic clock system in the courthouse is the massive grandfather clock inside the building on the second floor. It is not the exterior clock perched high above the building’s doors — though that clock also is stopped.
“That clock we are also looking at fixing,” said Jennifer Finch, spokeswoman for Weld County.
In June 2011, the Board of Weld County Commissioners set aside money to fix the courthouse’s exterior clock. It ran for several years but, Finch said, the system was disrupted again this past fall.
When 10,000 people attended the dedication of the Weld County Courthouse on July 4, 1917, the building's eight clocks ran on a cutting-edge system considered to be more reliable than electricity. Today, the clocks are an endangered species.
They kept time as the crowd wandered the building's gleaming marble halls and toured its four floors and many offices and as bands played music into that faraway summer evening. The clocks ran for the better part of a century after that. Sometime in the past 15 years, though, their metal hands froze. A century of steady, rhythmic wear finally took its toll on the system.
As part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the courthouse's dedication June 30, the committee members in charge of planning the event wanted to get the courthouse clocks running again. So they got in touch with Tim Orr.
A member of the board of directors for the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Orr has worked with clocks for decades. He is fairly confident he can get the Weld County Courthouse clocks running again.
The clock system in the courthouse is known as a "pneumatic" system. There are four remaining clocks scattered throughout the building, all of them powered by a massive grandfather clock on the building's second floor. Every 60 seconds, a bellows inside the grandfather clock compresses, sending a bubble of air through a maze of pipes connected to the four secondary clocks and moving their hands. Pneumatic clocks were billed as the wave of the future in the late 19th century, Orr said. At the time the courthouse was built, they were considered more reliable and easier to manage than electric clocks, which required enormous, acid-filled batteries.
That changed over the years. The availability of electricity rendered pneumatic clocks obsolete. Orr can name only a few other pneumatic clocks left in Colorado.
Jennifer Finch, spokeswoman for Weld County, said the county has considered fixing the clock system before, but it was the courthouse's upcoming centennial anniversary that spurred the effort into action.
Orr and other members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors volunteered to take on the project free of charge.
"We get a big charge out of looking at these things," he said. "These are all big parts of history."
Orr's dad began tinkering with them when he was a teenager, he said. Back then, as a rebellious youth, he wanted nothing to do with anything his father was interested in. Still, he picked up enough stray knowledge to be able to work on a public clock in a Denver office building where he landed a corporate job in the 1970s. As he worked on that first clock, he said, he had to call his dad numerous times for advice.
"The relationship between he and (I) got much better instantly," he said. "We became fast friends."
Clocks became a hobby that ultimately led him to the Weld County Courthouse.
Orr and two of his colleagues removed the master clock's mechanical heart Thursday morning. They took it to a small side room tucked away on the building's fourth floor. It will be their workspace until this afternoon when, Orr said, he hopes they will be able to get the clock running again.
The good news, Orr said, is that the clock seems to be in good shape. The biggest problem is its inner workings are dirty, and there is a hole in the bellows. He believes he and his team can fix those problems, but he said he doesn't know if they will be able to restore the pneumatic system throughout the building. Construction throughout the courthouse's history has damaged the old web of pipes. The master grandfather clock may run with the original system intact, but Orr thinks he may have to equip the four secondary clocks with batteries instead.
"But no one will be able to tell," he said.
He's worked on public clocks before, on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder and at a museum in Colorado Springs. He sees it as a service.
"It's always a shame to have a clock that isn't working," he said.
With his help, the clocks should be running again by the evening of June 30, the night of the courthouse's centennial anniversary. Once again, they will keep time as people gather at the courthouse for a celebration, as they did 100 years ago.