The maker of Gastown’s famous steam clock says some of the best years of his life were in Surrey.
“I lived in Guildford in the mid-1960s,” Raymond Saunders recalled in a phone call. “I was working at the Woodward’s store, where I was in charge of the watch and clock department for a few years before I moved.”
Little more than a decade later, in 1977, Saunders was commissioned to make the steam clock that would make him famous.
The 46-year-old clock still attracts curious tourists to the corner of Water and Cambie streets, where it stands over a grate that’s part of Vancouver’s distributed steam-heating system.
On Saturday (April 22), Saunders travelled back to Surrey to see “Just Time,” an art show focused on time and clocks at Newton Cultural Centre. Some of the art was created by Delta-based Theresa Moleski (Whispering Stones), who incorporated some clock parts from Saunders’ collection.
“I bought the two that I like the most, hand-painted art, oil on canvas, and I collect those as a hobby,” explained Saunders, who lives and still works as a horologist in Richmond, with his Landmark Clocks International.
“My office has lots of steam-clock pictures on the walls,” he added. “It’s very gratifying how popular it’s become in the city, where it’s a must-see attraction for tourists, I guess. And I have two of them in Japan, too – the same model and patterns, and they’re more popular than the Gastown one. Sometimes there’s a thousand people standing around the one up in Otaru, and they all clap when it goes off.”
Four years ago, tens of thousands of dollars were raised for Saunders when he fell off a ladder while working on a clock in Trenant Park Square in Ladner. He landed in hospital with serious injuries, including a broken pelvis, ribs and some vertebrae.
“Ray has never received royalties from any of the millions of photos, album covers, T-shirts and other things displaying the images of his most famous clock (in Gastown),” said a post on gofundme.com.
I first interviewed Saunders for a story in the WestEnder newspaper in February 1990, when the Gastown clock was just 12 years old.
At the time, Saunders talked about the creation of the $64,000 clock and how it was designed to harness steam. It was a wet September during the installation, and a hut was built to shelter Saunders and crew, but the steam on the plastic ceiling condensed.
“It just poured on us,” Saunders said in 1990. “It was raining outside and inside. We had boxes of nuts and bolts that were filled with water.”
While in Surrey last week, Saunders donated four books about the steam clock to the gallery, which will benefit from sale proceeds.
“I’m 83,” he said, “and I’m trying to retire, but it’s not easy to retire when you have a long history of doing work for people. I do a lot of work for people who have nice-sized collections of clocks, including some real unusual ones.”