There are certain sounds synonymous with Vancouver: the nine o'clock gun in Stanley Park; the noon O Canada horns at the convention centre; and, of course, the Gastown steam clock, tooting out Westminster Quarters on the quarter hour.
Except nowadays the brass-cased clock is more often silent than not, the only signs of life being wisps of steam drifting out its five whistle tubes. On Wednesday, it was back in operation, but a few minutes fast.
After 36 years of service, the world's first modern steam clock is wearing out. In recent months, city crews and the clock's creator, Richmond horologist Raymond Saunders, have found themselves with increasing frequency unscrewing the access plate to make repairs or adjustments to the complex one-of-a-kind machinery. And it's getting tougher to keep the old clock running.
"I was down there the other day and made an adjustment, and it's still going several days later. Let's keep our fingers crossed," Saunders said on Wednesday. "Frankly, it needs a complete overhaul."
Therein lies the problem. Clocks aren't cheap to repair. When it is a massive one-of-a-kind brass clock with hundreds of unique moving parts, the sky can be the limit.
"It is a bit of a challenge. It has been breaking down more often in the last year or so," said Taryn Scollard, Vancouver's director of streets. "Our challenge with it is, of course, that it is handmade, custom-made, with no spare parts for it whatsoever."
The city is now investigating the cost of a complete overhaul, which could run into the tens of thousands of dollars. That figure will far exceed the clock's annual maintenance budget of $6,000. Scollard said it's likely the repairs will have to go to council for approval under a capital request.
The city has no plans to shut down the clock, but may look at options such as replacing the internal mechanism with a modern piece if the costs of manufacturing replacement parts is prohibitive.
Originally built over budget at a cost of $58,000 in 1977, the clock has become an icon of the city. Built to hide a steam vent at the northwest corner of Water and Cambie streets, the clock originally used steam from the Central Heating steam system to power its internal mechanism. Years ago, the city replaced part of the system with three electric motors after parts wore out, but the clock continues to use steam to power the whistles, including the central whistle salvaged off the CPR steam tug Naramata.
But those hidden internal changes haven't diminished the clock's attraction. It still toots and belches steam. And it draws thousands of tourists, like almost no other fixture in the city except perhaps Stanley Park.
Just down the street and around the corner from the city's cruise ship terminal, the clock is a must-see in tourist guide books and it is not by mistake that the city tour buses start and finish right beside the clock.
It has even created employment in the form of Steve Vanderbeeken, a self-appointed tour guide and panhandler who lives in the Downtown Eastside.
Every quarter hour, he gives a detailed lecture on the clock's origins, and then asks for handouts. And the tourists who gather to listen pay, in part because of the passion in his voice.
"I had a family come all the way from New York just to see the clock," said Vanderbeeken. "It is that famous. But it's breaking down a lot more now."
Leanore Sali, the executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Association, jokes that merchants in the area have a love-hate relationship with the clock because it's noisy when it goes off every 15 minutes. But she loves the clock and says the city can't do without it.
"It is so much a part of our DNA now as a city that to not have it would be a great loss," she said. "There are millions of websites with photographs of this clock. This is more than an ambassador for Gastown, it is an ambassador for Vancouver."