Man of the hour resets Union Station clock
Although few Portlanders will think about it, the hour hands on the tower clock at Union Station jumped forward one hour Saturday night for daylight saving time.
In these computerized days, most clocks automatically spring forward in March and fall back in November when daylight-saving time ends. But the four-sided clock in the station tower is not computerized — or even electric, although the faces are illuminated.
Instead, it is a Seth Thomas Tower Clock — an old fashioned mechanical clock with hands that must be adjusted manually. It is nearly 125 years old, and even must be wound once a week to keep time.
Keeping the clock accurate is important. The Amtrak station is one of the most iconic buildings in Portland. Opened on Feb. 14, 1896, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The signature piece of the structure is the 150-foot Romanesque Revival tower that holds the clock.
So where do you find someone who knows how to work on such a clock these days? Meet John Pohlpeter, a fan of everything old and mechanical. A former machinist and welder, he owns Father Time Clocks, a clock repair shop outside of Oregon City. He is on contract to maintain the Union Station clock and change its hands.
"I come in twice a year, more if problems come up," Pohlpeter said.
At 8:30 p.m. last Saturday, Pohlpeter and a handful of volunteer assistants gathered in the lobby of Union Station, which is now owned by Prosper Portland, the former Portland Development Commission.
After registering with security, the group climbed more than 300 stairs up to the clock. After the station's third floor, the stairs turned increasingly more narrow as they clung to the interior brick walls of the boxy tower.
When the group reached the floor that holds the clock, they found it in a locked shedlike structure known as a "dog house." Its primary purposes is keeping pigeons away from the delicate mechanism, which sits in a metal frame that stands more than 5 feet tall. The design is called a double three-legged gravity escapement, which is named after the linkage that releases the gear train that moves the hands forward, creating the characteristic "tick tock" sound.
Despite their size, moving all four exterior hour hands forward was remarkably simple. Pohlpeter and the others took turns twisting a small gas fireplace key inserted into a tiny "setting dial" inside the mechanism.
The advances were transferred to the outside hands through a series of ever-larger drive shafts and universal joints. Each full turn advanced the minute hands 60 seconds. The outside progress of the minute and hour hands was tracked on a 4-inch diamater "auxilary dial" that faced the opened door. The final time was set by referring to the digital clock on a hand-held iPhone.
Next, everyone took turns winding the clock, which involved turning a crank that raised a 500-pound weight connected to it by a cable. The weight will drop slowly in a metal tube that descends through one corner of the tower. It will need to be raised again in a week, a job usually done by Union Station employees.
After closing and locking the dog house door, everyone descended the stairs back to the lobby and went their separate ways.
In addition to owning a clock repair shop, Pohlpeter repairs and collects other relics from the past, including player pianos and large music boxes, which he stores and occasionally displays in a large converted sheet-metal shop near his house.
"They were mostly used for entertainment in bars, confectionaries and brothels," Pohlpeter said.
He also is fascinated by steam power. Pohlpeter is one of the volunteers who helps maintain the historic Southern Pacific 4449 that operates out of the Oregon Rail Heritage Center near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and owns a restored steam tractor that he brings to the annual Great Oregon Steam-Up weekend at Powerland Heritage Park in Brooks.
Many TV viewers are familiar with some of the pieces in Pohlpeter's collection, even if they don't know it. He furnished all of the clocks for "Grimm," the NBC supernatural mystery show that was shot in Portland. They added atmosphere to various interior locations.
Pohlpeter says his father, another former machinist, first got him interested in clocks as a child. Both were fascinated with how they worked and supplemented their incomes by repairing and refurbishing them out of their homes.
Pohlpeter eventually went to work at the original Father Time Clocks repair shop in 1980, then bought it from the owner in 1992 before moving it to his property.
Pohlpeter's father also got him involved with the Union Station clock. He maintained and reset it twice a year for more than 15 years. After tiring of climbing the tower stairs in his 80s, he turned it completely over to his son.