Thanks to loving care, historic Carson City clock keeps ticking

Bob Hartman talks about the clock tower in the Laxalt Building in Carson City, Nev., on Tuesday, June 9, 2015.

Bob Hartman talks about the clock tower in the Laxalt Building in Carson City, Nev., on Tuesday, June 9, 2015.

Every 15 minutes, the chimes in the Laxalt Building ring through downtown Carson City, marking the passage of time with a classical tune or a Beatles melody, even the state’s song, “Home Means Nevada.”

But it hasn’t always been that way.

When Bill Hartman moved to Carson City in 1996, it seemed in a way that time stood still.

“I noticed there was all this construction at the Laxalt Building,” he said. “But every time I drove by the clock, it was always the same time.”

Built between 1889 and 1892, the building at 401 N. Carson St. was originally home to the federal courthouse, with the courtrooms and judges’ chambers still evident. It was later used as a post office and as the Nevada State Library.

The clock, the ninth of 17 known clocks built by Bohemian immigrant Joseph Barborka, was installed in 1892. It kept time for nearly 100 years, when Hartman noticed it no longer functioned.

He approached state officials and offered to restore the piece of local history with fellow retired Navy officer Lee Carter, both of whom had a history in engineering.

Upon entering the clock tower for the first time, Hartman said, they found the clock in a heap on the floor. They learned it had been disassembled in the 1980s as part of earthquake retrofitting after the Dixie Valley earthquake in 1954 broke some spires off the top of the building and caused damage to the clock.

With no experience, they set about restoring the artifact to working order.

“Engineers can just tinker around with stuff,” he said.

And they resisted the urge to modernize it.

“A lot of old clocks have been electrified,” he said. “I really didn’t want to do that. I wanted to keep it original.”

Hartman estimates they invested about 100 hours to restore the clock works. The clock officially ticked backed to life on June 10, 1999.

But the work was not finished.

Shortly after the restoration, a committee was formed to add a carillon, an automated mechanism that plays Westminster chimes, to the tower.

Between Oct. 1 and Oct. 20 of that year, the community raised $11,000. With such a tight crunch before the Oct. 30 Nevada Day celebration, Hartman propped the speakers out of the window of the Laxalt Building.

They played “Home Means Nevada,” as then-Gov. Kenny Guinn drove past, a tradition that continues today.

The speakers have now been permanently mounted in an abandoned ventilator shaft on the main roof.

The Carson City Carillon and Clock Committee continues to meet quarterly, establishing the schedule for the chimes and conducting general business. The clock is wound weekly.

On a recent summer day, Hartman wound it. To get there, he takes an elevator — installed in the 1920s — to the fourth floor where he climbs a ladder — built in 1892 — up into the clock tower.

With no ventilation, the tower is stifling hot.

The exposed wooden walls bear the names of those who came before, including signatures from the original builders in 1889 and notable Nevadans including John Ascuaga.

“If someone was to write up here now, it would be graffiti,” Hartman said. “But give it some time, and it’s historical stuff.”

With the ease of routine, he turns the large wooden handle to wind the cable, which is anchored to a 75-pound weight that powers a 39.15-inch pendulum. He checks the clock’s time against a satellite clock he keeps in the tower, and makes a note in the meticulously kept logs.

To him, all the work he’s put into it just makes sense.

“The clock should be working,” he said. “It’s just as simple as that. Part of my mission is to make sure it never stops again.”


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