The History of Dubuque’s Town Clock
Dubuque's Town Clock has been a notable landmark for the city since 1864, but how much do you know about its history? When I was informed that it was not always in its current location, I was compelled to do a little further digging.
Dr. Asa Horr started the fundraising campaign to build a town clock in Dubuque, Iowa in 1864. The clock, bought from Naylor & Company of New York, began running in November of 1864 and was said to be the most accurate town clock in the United States at the time! It originally sat atop the John Bell and Company store, a building on Main Street between Eighth and Ninth street. However, on May 5, 1872 nearby workers spotted cracks in the buildings walls and were forced to rush for cover as the tower swayed before collapsing, tragically causing 3 deaths.
In October of 1872, the mayor met with a finance committee. It was decided the job of construction go to John Mullany, who accepted the contract that the work would be done in thirty days. The clock was to be shipped from New York as soon as it was finished. However, that was pushed back after Dr. Asa Horr recieved a letter sent by the clock manufacturer, E. Howard & Company, that stated that the clock wouldn't be ready for shipment until the middle of February. All involved hoped its late arrival would be the last roadblock for our beloved town clock, but unfortunately, this was not the case. On February 3, 1873, around 9:00 p.m. locals noticed that the clockless tower was on fire! The flames were luckily extinguished before any serious damage took place.
The new clock arrived on March 11, 1873. Pieces of it were hoisted into place until its completion. Finally, on Apri1 17, 1873, a new clock stood tall! It operated by weights susended from chains in the shafts leading down to the building's basement. Two boys were hired to wind up the weights. The job took an hour and a half and would have the clock operating for about a week. A motor to wind the chains would ultimately replace the boys in 1918.
Dubuquers were happy with the clock but were less than pleased by the sound of its bell, as it no longer rang clearly. In 1878 a "hydrodynamic machine" was added, with the thought that the tone could be made louder by increasing the force of its strike.
In 1923 the cost of repairing the clock's tower (somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000) led the city to decide to remove the clock. There were suggestions that the clock be moved from its tower and placed on a new building, but fans of the tower hated that idea. A poll conducted by the Times-Journal found that the residents wanted the tower maintained, so the repairs were made. In 1927 a new Seth Thomas mechanism was added, and the clock was then electrified and synchronized.
Fast forward to 1967; the conception of the Town Clock Plaza. Designers of the plaza wanted the site to have a vertical feature that would "recall some object, event or person important in the history of Dubuque or of the Dubuque central area." The Town Clock was proposed because of its classical beauty, historic ties to the area, and its functionality. The city agreed, but only if funds for the relocation were raised through donations. A portion of the cost had been covered by contributions from Interstate Power Company, John Deere Works, and Dubuque Savings and Loan Association. On July 16, 1970, the "Your Town Clock Committee" was formed with the goal to relocate the Town Clock to its current spot in Town Clock Square. They put on the very first telethon ever to be held in Dubuque to raise the rest of the money! Disappointing news came after this event, however, when the bid for the project came in $12,000 over the original estimate. Contractors had the option of removing the clock by "conventional methods" from the top of the building at 825 Main St., restoring it at the city storage yard, and then moving it to the 7th and Main location. Another option was the use of a helicopter to fly the clock to the columned pedestal where it could be refurbished in place. This was thought to be cheaper. After a year and 2 months, the required funds were finally raised!
On Friday, February 12, 1971, the thirteen-ton "tower" was delivered to the site and bolted to the four-column concrete pedestal. On February 16, the clock's faces were installed, followed by the cupola. The completed clock now stands nearly two feet taller than it did at its previous site!
Did you know about our Town Clock's interesting history? If you'd like to learn in more detail visit encyclopediadubuque.org/townclock.