Colman Clock (Seattle)

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 12/04/2005
  • Essay 7559
The Colman Clock of the Seattle Ferry Terminal at Colman Dock has truly taken a licking, but keeps on ticking. Over the past hundred years, since 1908 when it arrived, the clock has been dunked into Puget Sound, tossed in a warehouse, and moved around here and there. Today (2005) it is back at Colman Dock (Seattle Pier 52), and once again marks the minutes and hours of the day.

Time and Tide

The clock arrived in Seattle in 1908, and was installed atop a 72-foot-high tower at the end of Colman Dock. Built by the E. Howard Clock Co. of Boston, the clock’s four  54-inch dials were lighted from the inside to act as a beacon, aiding in the scheduled arrivals and departures of travelers on both land and water.

It served its duty well until the evening of April 25, 1912, when the steamship Alameda slammed into the dock and sent passengers in the waiting room running for their lives. The stately tower sheared off, fell onto the Alameda, and then into Puget Sound. The clock drifted off into the darkness. It was recovered the next day with its hands stopped at 10:23, the exact time of the accident.

Repairs were made to the damaged timekeeper, and it was reinstalled atop a newer, taller tower, where it overlooked Elliott Bay until 1936. One year before, the Puget Sound Navigation Company had launched the “futuristic” Kalakala, and the Edwardian features of Colman Dock suddenly looked old fashioned. Down it came, and in its place rose a streamlined Art Deco building that was more in style with the times. The clock was disassembled, hauled away, and soon forgotten.

Time Wasted

No one gave the timepiece much thought until 1976, when it was discovered in a Seattle warehouse on the corner of 12th Avenue and Jackson Street, sharing space with some old chicken coops. At first, no one realized its significance. It was lying in pieces, its gears and pendulums rusty, its glass dials cracked and shattered. Experts from Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry were called in. After much research it was determined that this was the long lost Colman Clock. It had been hidden from sight for 40 years.

Although in disrepair, the clock was salvageable and worthy of restoration. A shopping mall back east expressed interest in purchasing the tower clock, but Seattle was loath to give up its historic timepiece. In 1984, the Port of Seattle purchased the clock and enlisted the help of the Puget Sound Chapter of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors to restore it.

Weekly meetings were held at the watch shop of the North Seattle Community College to rebuild this piece of Seattle history. Each piece of the clock was cleaned and repainted, and in some cases new parts were manufactured to match those beyond repair. Special care was given to the movement and mechanism, to assure that the clock would once again keep precision time. All told, members volunteered more than 800 hours to bring the clock back to mint condition.

Test of Time

On May 18, 1985, a ceremony was held during National Maritime Week at Colman Dock wherein the Port of Seattle formally presented the clock to Washington State Department of Transportation. Special thanks were given to those who had spent so many hours restoring the clock to its former glory.

One of those watchmen was S. H. “Amby” Ambjor, who -- to this day (2005) -- keeps watch over the clock. When it was reinstalled in 1985, Amby used to come down and wind it every three days. An electric motor now keeps the mechanism in sync, but Amby still makes sure that the clock is kept in perfect working order, and has trained others in this endeavor. Amby was also consulted when the clock was moved back outside for all in Seattle to enjoy.

Sources: “Old Colman Dock to be Renewed,” The Seattle Times , December 1, 1936, p. 7; “Dedication Day at Ferry Terminal,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 19, 1966, p. 8; “Colman Family is Back on the Dock,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 16, 1982, p. D-1; “Dock Clock -- It’s Going to Tell the Time Again after 49 Years,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 16, 1985, p. D-1; Alan J. Stein interview with S. H. Ambjor, March 23, 2005, Seattle, Washington.

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